Sassy burgers and deodorant are in a war for your love
“Delete your account.”
“Turn your hat around. You aren’t Bart Simpson and this isn’t 1997.”
“No, but your opinion is (trash) though.”
“Oh look…another Twitch streamer we haven’t heard of.”
Anger can often seem like the tone of the internet. “Never read the comment section” is uttered as if a digital-age proverb. What made these fiery retorts notable is that they weren’t from a salty no-name troll, but from the maker of sea-salt fries, the international fast-food chain, Wendy’s. In 2016 the brand’s Twitter account took on a decidedly off-brand, off-color approach to trolls — they trolled them back. People loved it. Since then, many-a-brand has joined the skirmish, and brand feuds and customer-directed clap backs have become news-worthy beyond the headlines of ad trades.
Brands today are in a desperate fight for your love, throwing shade for attention. We are in a new era of brand jockeying: the participation in clap back culture.
Brands have engaged in feuding for as long as they’ve had competitors. Take, for example, our national entanglement in the Cola Wars in the late 70s to 90s, which drafted battalions of newly-chubby Americans into its long and bitter fight. Coincidentally, the end of the Cola Wars was also when the first known usage of the term “clap back” appeared, in 1990. For the less on fleek among us, clap back refers to a “a quick, sharp, and effective response to criticism,” often deployed on internet haters. As the internet has grown louder, so has the resounding clap.
The year Twitter hit mainstream, 2012, was the same year we saw the first of the online brand clap backs, between Taco Bell and Old Spice. The traction from the exchange opened the comeback-floodgates, as we collectively cheered cookies picking fights with movie theaters and cellphones insulting the size of a customer’s manhood. As customers engaged with brands in less than polite terms — clearly looking for a reaction — well, they got a comeback, too. Insulting rude customers would be unthinkable IRL (in real life), but is simply the law of the jungle on social media.
The tempo of social media — the immediacy, casual tone, insider internet language, and the expectation of broadcasting whatever trivial thought was on your mind — forced brands to contend with a new aspect of their identity. No one wanted to hear from a corporate-sounding brand talking about themselves from a script. Hucksterism isn’t content, so brands needed to be entertaining, responsive, and real. This revelation made brands evaluate the need for a more human tone; that is, a more imperfect tone. Brands participating in social media had to integrate into culture’s topic and nature of conversation, not the other way around…And the general nature of that conversation wasn’t always polite.
In a crowded space, brands resorted to tactics used by attention-starved denizens of social media everywhere — they behaved badly. In hot pursuit of “engagement metrics” brands took note of the cult of personality around unstable, norm-defying personas. Hungry brands followed the drama like blood in the water. People piling on comments like children in a school yard yelling “Fight! Fight!” was metric gold, and became further encouragement for brands to keep the clap backs coming.
An unintended consequence of feeding the comeback beast was that in doing so, brands have started to blur their identifiable edges and lose their established brand voice. The tone of social media can often feel like a young (arguably white) male by default, and as brands try to perfect the choice comeback — terse, informal, and aided with timely memes — they start to sound the same; like a pissy juvenile in a dark bedroom. Those Wendy’s quotes at the top of this article could have well been from any troll…not what you want when establishing your unique brand.
Advertising occupies a strange space; we both shape culture and reflect it. We’re swept up in the zeitgeist of the day, where bullying and increasingly inflammatory remarks are normal parts of conversation. People with opposing views are dummies, news is what we read, and all else, fake. Every day we choose sides, and sharp criticism flows ceaselessly about the Other.
Coming at the Other isn’t without consequences. Brands have the power to legitimize and validate through their large footprint, spend, and impact on mainstream conversations. To fuel a manufactured clap back culture is to give credibility to attention-seeking public confrontation; even by the standards of a large corporation with an image to maintain, an aggressive legal team, and the advisement of brand strategists such as myself at their back. Brands are giving meanness for affection merit.
This next generation seems to have internalized this lesson. In my research with Generation Z, a group of high-school-aged respondents in Oklahoma extoled the importance of society being more accepting of others. Five minutes later, the exact same group all said they had fake social media profiles, in order to anonymously bully peers. Like a brand that adorns their stores with signs about Having it your Way, spends countless millions on Customer Service, and then turns arounds and cuts you down on social media, this next generation is learning multiple brand identities — one polished, one Mr. Hyde — is normal. It’s how you get love and fame. This research also points to Finstagram-loving Gen Z as compartmentalizing their identities, which they treat as a suite of personal brands…which only makes one wonder what role these brands have played in Z doing so.
Marketers aim to give consumers what they want. With the amount of sharp commentary and provocation of Others online, it’s natural to assume that means comebacks and a feed full of sass. But it appears Americans are looking for reprieve from the negative tide. On Reddit, r/MadeMeSmile, r/Aww, /HumansBeingBros and r/WholesomeMemes content regularly hit the front page, and feel good stories circulate the internet to live news reports with mind-boggling speed. CEB Gartner, who tracks changing American values in their Values and Lifestyle Survey, have found that among the top 10 values for 2019 are Courtesy (5) and Happiness (10). The values that have moved up the most are values around serenity, safety, and relaxation. Clap backs are in opposition to all of these values.
There is certainly good to be found in brands exploring complex emotions and diversity in their identity, including the occasional anger. And seeing a witty and cutting responses will always be a guilty pleasure. However, brands need to take another beat before they engage in competitor (or customer) beat-downs just for cheap likes. Not all brands can or should dilute their personality by assuming the identity of a faceless, sophomoric troll. The kids are watching and internalizing our salty, fractured-identity endorsements. And, perhaps most of all, America is looking for courtesy and safety in their lives, not ceaseless and undiscerning anger.
And the customer is always right.