Melissa Harris-Perry: I'm Melissa Harris-Perry, back now on The Takeaway. If you have a string of pearls, this is going to be a good time to clutch them because we're talking about corporate advertising on social media. In case you haven't noticed, many big brands have gone from racy innuendo to full-fledged raunchy sales pitches. That "sex sells" is a truism in advertising, but even for those of us who no one would describe as prudish, recent social media for many beloved brands has gone from suggestive to downright smutty.
Take a glance at some beloved brands and you'll find Oreo comparing itself to the big O and KFC's Spanish-language account posting fan art of a scantily-clad Colonel Sanders. It seems that companies have embraced the digitally raunchy, but how effective are these naughty incursions into our social media feeds? Does dancing along the edge of the pornographic translate into more purchases? Nathan Allebach is creative director at Allebach Communications and a freelance writer covering internet culture. His recent piece on brands for Vulture is what got us talking about this. Nathan, welcome to The Takeaway.
Nathan Allebach: Yes, thanks for having me, Melissa.
Melissa Harris-Perry: All right, so what's going on here? Is this just the latest iteration of "sex sells" or is this something new?
Nathan Allebach: Yes, so that's where everybody's mind goes when they hear about brands acting aroused online. I've been trying to differentiate what's traditionally known as "sex sells" from this, which I'm calling "horny shocks," which is essentially a different strategy altogether. Whereas in the past, "sex sells" would be using models and sexual imagery and lips and things like that to really get through a message. This strategy, if you want to call it that, from brands is much more about just shocking and provoking the audience to get them to drop their jaw and be like, "Yes, why is this brand themselves acting aroused essentially?"
Melissa Harris-Perry: All right, so this is interesting to me. I'm wondering, typically, presumably brands, corporations respond to whatever the incentive structure is around them, right? We get the "sex sells" version in the '90s and the '80s because it has a real incentive structure. It does, in fact, sell. Horny shocks, is this because shock has its own particular purchase value on social media? In other words, Twitter creates new incentives that, for example, TV and radio don't have.
Nathan Allebach: Absolutely, yes. When you look at the past few years, figures like Trump or Elon Musk, they've been able to generate this gravitational pool where they post something that's intentionally polarizing or inflammatory. It just draws in this zeitgeist of engagement where you've got people that are mad about the thing that was posted, and then you have people defending the thing that was posted.
It's like this ping-pong effect that goes back and forth. Similarly, brands have tapped into this sort of way of provocation. Now, they're just trying to figure out what is going to get us the most engagement in this ever-growing attention economy that we live in where everybody's just so saturated with media consumption that it's more and more difficult for them to stand out with their marketing.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Nathan, I love so much that you went immediately to the politics example here in part because I'm often-- As a political science professor when I'm talking to students, it's interesting to me how many business students I end up with in my classes because that notion of selling a candidate and selling a brand are so similar. I hadn't thought of it until you said it now, but this is almost like the Trumpification in the sense of a 2016 Trump campaign strategy, right? The Trumpification of these brands because it is just shocking things that people then retweet or share to say, "Can you believe you saw this thing?"
Nathan Allebach: Yes. In the advertising industry, we've been colloquially referring this to as people now want to be brands and brands now want to be people, where there's this kind of constant ebb and flow where people, individuals, want to brand-build to be influencers and these public figures online, and then brands are having a difficult time standing out within that ecosystem.
They try to act human to break through and relate to people and play as if they're the person behind the account essentially. A large part of that is just this kind of-- It's not all cheap shock value stuff. In this new environment where we have just so many get-viral-quick moments, it's just really difficult, I think, for a lot of brands to break through the noise. These types of strategies become much more common.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Set this strategy next to something else that's gone on in recent years. Since the second wave of the Black Lives Matter uprisings in the summer of 2020, we saw many long-term US brands shed their racialized advertising. I'm thinking here of things like Uncle Ben's and Aunt Jemima, which had come into being at the turn of the 20th century when racialized and racist advertising connected to a brand was a surefire way to make a lot of money. I guess I'm wondering. On the one hand, you have this sense of maybe growing corporate responsibility around racialized branding set right next to what feels like maybe less corporate responsibility relative to this body branding.
Nathan Allebach: Yes, I think that's another leg to this whole trend where, years ago, you started to see the beginning of this with the Colin Kaepernick/Nike partnership. I think it was Kendall Jenner, that Pepsi ad where she's like handing a Pepsi to a police officer during a protest. It's supposed to symbolize stopping the protest or whatever. You've had brands play in these waters the past few years, and then totally agree during the George Floyd protest in 2020.
That's when tons and tons of brands just jumped into what some people call "taking a stand" or "cause marketing," which is basically explicitly saying, "We stand for this issue now." Even if it's polarizing to them or their audience, they view it as a value-add, whether that be for just online engagement or whether that be for maybe the owner's values or maybe it is just like a cultural Overton window shift where, I think, during the protest, a lot of brands felt like it was now safe to move into speaking like, "Oh, we're now for racial justice because it's very popular in the culture right now."
Like you said earlier, these brands, it's just in their nature to shift and move around as to where trends are and where they can be incentivized to make a profit. I think that's just one of the several movements in recent years where we've seen so normalized now to see brands with political takes that it's already starting to lose some of its provocative effect that it had a few years ago.
Melissa Harris-Perry: As you talk about brands becoming people, can you talk a little bit about the 2017 Wendy's Twitter account that really got up in petty corner with it and went viral as a result?
Nathan Allebach: Yes, so when most people think about brands acting strange or human on Twitter, their mind right away goes to Wendy's because, in 2017, they went viral for roasting a random user on Twitter who was making fun of them, calling their beef frozen. It was so popular that Anderson Cooper actually covered it on a segment that year. It really put this landscape of brands on Twitter in the national conversation.
The trend had been going on for a few years prior to that. Since that period to now, it's really every corporation, every institution. You have government agencies. Even the state of New Jersey, which now some people are familiar with that is a funny, edgy personality on Twitter. Wendy's was really the one that solidified the trend, but it had been going on for a few years before that.
Melissa Harris-Perry: It feels to me as though another truism in advertising is that you follow the trend for a while, but the way that you ultimately break through is to do something counter-trend, right? If everybody else is packaging their ice cream in blue and yellow and pink, you become briars and you package it in black at a time when black is not supposed to be something that you package food products in and, boom, you stand out. If that is right, what is the, maybe on the horizon, counter-trend to this where we might see brands differentiate themselves, not with lasciviousness or lecherousness but maybe with something else in this space?
Nathan Allebach: Yes, so that's the million-dollar question. Back in 2017 with this viral Wendy's moment where they were being sassy to a user on Twitter, brands quickly figured out that that was a way for them to go viral. It became a playbook essentially for brands to act edgy and sassy and do these clapbacks to people online and similar to other brands that have figured out these trends once they've become a successful case study, and then everybody jumps on it until it becomes boring or lame and then they start the next thing.
The difference, I guess, with this horny, aroused content that brands are doing now is that it's been going on for several years. It somehow has this seemingly infinite lifespan. I think it's, in part, looping back around to the Trump or Elon Musk's style of Twitter account, where it just has this provocation aspect to it where, even if you're sick of it personally and you hate it, so many people in that position are still willing to engage with it, calling it out, so to speak.
That kind of cycle, whether you love it or you hate it, keeps people engaging. I definitely think the novelty of this trend is wearing off very quickly, but I don't know if it's going to stop brands from participating in it. Because when I look at what are left in terms of cultural taboos or uncharted territory, there are very few things that even come to mind. I think certain brands have already taken to criticizing capitalism as a structure and that's become--
Melissa Harris-Perry: [laughs] I'm sorry. Brands have taken to criticizing capitalism?
Nathan Allebach: Yes, some explicitly, maybe in roundabout ways. In certain corners of the internet, I think especially Twitter, it's a bit trendy to critique capitalism. They use that as an anti-marketing marketing strategy essentially, where there's a tinge of self-awareness to what they're doing. If they can commodify that and then they can commodify acting aroused and various social justice ideas, it's difficult to think what is something that's going to stand out in contrast to those issues. I thought for a while, maybe brands would go back to direct sales tactics and just being really basic. I think when you compare that style of approach to brands talking about being aroused and mentioning genitals, I think it's really difficult to make that pitch as a strategy.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Oh, man, maybe Doritos will get on the couch and have some therapy on social media for all of us.
Nathan Allebach: That's right.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Help me get out of this that I am in. Nathan Allebach is creative director and writer covering internet culture. Nathan, come back and talk with us again about what's going on in the world of people selling us things because I love this. Thanks so much.
Nathan Allebach: Yes, anytime. Thanks for having me, Melissa.
New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of New York Public Radio’s programming is the audio record.