Brand Twitter, please stay away from #Election2020


Brands are coming for the 2020 national election, whether you like it or not.

Don’t believe me? Take a look at how brand Twitter has evolved in the past few years. We started off 2017 with MoonPie, a graham cracker marshmallow dessert, telling absurd jokes on Twitter. It was slightly annoying to watch a brand co-opt a joke format beloved by millennials, but it was largely benign. By 2018, brand Twitter’s voice had gotten bolder, more sophisticated, and more intimate: The maker of the Honey Bun, for example, was now offering relationship advice.

Then, in 2019, all hell broke loose after SunnyD initiated a “humorous” conversation about depression.

It was a watershed moment. But it wasn’t a surprise. Over the past two years, brand Twitter has developed an increasingly provocative, personal, and supposedly millennial-friendly voice. Given how invasive they’ve become, it’s highly likely that our upcoming election will be their next grand social project.

Here’s my ask of brand Twitter as we hurtle toward what may be the most important election of our lifetimes: Leave politics the hell alone.

This election doesn’t need brand voices. Full stop.

Brands during the 2016 election were less invasive than they are now. They were still annoying.

2016 brand Twitter was hardly the highly evolved beast it is today. Still, we heard from companies across social platforms, including both YouTube and Twitter, during campaign season.

In 2016, the “political” message of brands generally fell into one of two categories: a call to their followers to vote, or a plea for their followers to “reach across the aisle.” The former is innocuous, even pro-social; the latter is much more complicated territory for corporations. Reaching across the aisle can sometimes mean “accepting” the other party’s positions as morally neutral or simply different — even when those positions threaten real violence. And corporations aren’t necessarily the best mediators for this complicated political conversation.

Case in point: Do you remember when Amy Schumer and Seth Rogen participated in a Bud Light-sponsored political ad campaign? I do, because I haven’t been able to successfully wipe it from my memory. The two comedians attempted to “reach across the aisle” and address issues of interest to all Americans. The concept was milquetoast, and the campaign tanked and ended early. Be grateful.

JetBlue had a similar campaign in which they encouraged voters to “reach across the aisle,” ideally to help reduce political polarization. And through JetBlue’s experiential marketing program, voters could potentially win a free flight!

Three cheers for democracy, everyone!

Then there’s Izod, which put viral star and undecided voter Ken Bone in their get-out-the-vote campaign. In the the company’s defense, Bone was the perfect icon for brand activism: a largely neutral, celebrated figure who thought “both sides” had issues and strengths, and who initially kept his general election vote private.

It’s tricky for brands to know how they should operate in our current political environment, especially on social platforms. But for Kenneth McCarthy — the person behind do-no-harm troll persona, Ken M, known for his good-natured teasing of corporate brands — the boundaries are clear: Even the most basic level of political engagement is too much. 

McCarthy’s troll persona is light-hearted. McCarthy the person is serious. He loathes the dominant role corporations play on our social platforms, especially when it comes to politics.

“The values of advertising are antithetical to democratic values,” McCarthy told Mashable in a phone interview. “I can’t imagine a positive marriage of two. I’m really having trouble thinking of a good way [the brands] could advertise that would be for the public good.”

Brands are now increasingly personal and bold on Twitter

McCarthy’s concerns are well placed. We’ve come a long way from MoonPie’s playful Twitter persona. 

Steak-umm’s Twitter monologue in September of 2018 was a tipping point. The brand went into an explosive, Network-style monologue about why millennials build relationships with brands: because they’re alienated from everything else. They don’t have access to good jobs or mental health services. They have Steak-umm.

 

For all the likes Steak-umm earned, they also received plenty of scorn. And their rant made one thing clear: Millennial despair sells.

It wasn’t long after that that brands started to get more intimate with their audience on Twitter. Look at what happened during Super Bowl 2019, when SunnyD seriously-or-farcically posted a cry for help on Twitter.

Other brands immediately started piggybacking on the tweet. It was Little Debbie that took the spectacle a step further, offering more serious “wisdom” about depression before ultimately taking the tweet down.

“Depression shouldn’t be a #brand engagement strategy,” Eater wrote of the incident.

A line had been crossed, perhaps permanently. Kenneth McCarthy believes brands have become increasingly aggressive on social platforms.

“It’s very ballsy what they’re doing and it’s gotten more audacious,” McCarthy told Mashable. “The kind of audacity we’re talking about, it’s just shockingly bold … I get chills thinking about the kind of conversations that led to this outcome.”

Brad Kim, Editor-in-Chief of Know Your Meme, the internet meme database, agrees:

“Brands are getting personal and more individual. They’re taking a page off parody accounts. They feel that, ‘If we don’t do that, somebody else who doesn’t represent us will.'”

The consequences of this assertive engagement strategy are serious. If brands joke about depression on Twitter, where will they stop?

#BrandTheVote

We’re more than a year and a half away from the 2020 election, but companies have already started to broach the topic on Twitter. 

In January of this year, Pop-Tarts made an announcement on Twitter: “Hello I am considering a presidential run in 2020. Please RT if you would support this endeavor for me.” The tweet proceeded to get over 33,000 retweets and 57,000 likes. It was so popular it surpassed the number of likes Howard Schultz‘s announcement received on the platform.

“It was lighthearted the way they engaged. It was throwing shade at Schultz,” Kim told Mashable. “It ended up delivering a satirical and sharp-witted jab at the Starbucks CEO. But it also gained non-partisan support by trivializing how much brands engage with politics.”

Just look at the fallout. Multiple snack brands jumped onto the thread, either declaring support for Pop-Tarts or promising to run on their own.

Meet the next vice president of the United States, Hostess Snacks. You know Hostess — they’re the makers of the Twinkie.

It wouldn’t be a branded Twitter thread if Steak-umm didn’t have something to add.

I know what you’re thinking: the Pop-Tarts tweet is a joke. And it is. But look at the type of feedback it received from people on Twitter. Users loved it.

All of this drama is happening against a backdrop of real voter apathy. Just 58.1 percent of America’s voting eligible population turned out to vote in 2016, a drop in turnout from 2008, when 61.6 percent of voting eligible people turned out to vote, and down even from 2012, when 58.6% did. 

America needs as much voter engagement as they can get. Pop-Tarts’ faux candidacy cheapens the political conversation and dulls the national urgency.

“First of all, brands shouldn’t be on social media at all,” McCarthy told Mashable. “They don’t do anything or provide any public service … If they want to ride or highjack these political conversations —and they probably can’t take sides — the [best] they can do is offer platitudes about unity. I’d prefer that they just completely disappear from the conversation. The stakes are so high in this [upcoming] election, anything that social media did, or brands on social media did, would exploit it. Cheapen it. They’ll exploit this crisis we’re in politically.” 

‘Ya hear that brands? Just leave our shitty election alone.

How to protect yourself from brand Twitter

The chances that brands won’t participate in our upcoming national election are low. Maybe it’ll come in the form of a fake Steak-umm presidential campaign. Maybe we’ll all have to participate in a Hostess-sponsored Twitter poll about whether Sunny D should run for office given their past history of depression. Maybe Little Debbie will moderate a debate with all the other snack brands.

The possibilities are endless — and bad.

The only way to partially protect yourself from brand Twitter in the upcoming election is to rob them of engagement.

“Even a ratio’d tweet [an unpopular tweet that has disproportionate number of comments compared to likes] can still be viewed as a positive if the goal is to be disruptive and rise above the clutter,” McCarthy said. “The best thing to do is to not come after brands in an outrage. Unfollow them. Aggressively ignore them. Aggressively not engage the brands.”

We can’t stop the brands from exploiting our upcoming election to build brand engagement. So we have only one option: to ignore them all. 

#AggressivelyIgnoreTheBrands2020

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