Earlier this month, Burger King announced they were releasing ‘Real Meals’ – because ‘no one is happy all the time’. Their options – designed to counter the ‘Happy Meal’ now include the ‘Pissed Meal, Blue Meal, Salty Meal, YAAAS Meal and the DGAF Meal.’ Burger King said in a press release that ‘the brand believes in authenticity and welcomes all guests’ and that it ‘understands that no one is happy all the time.’
This isn’t a particularly new phenomenon. As the comms industry website Healthcare Communication put it: ‘There’s a growing trend for branded Twitter accounts to interact with one another, whether that’s through coordinated conversations, fake feuds or a viral conversation. Though some might wonder if this digital marketing move is wearing out its welcome, fans still seem to love the often-witty banter and exchanges between organizations.’
Here is an actual exchange between two brands on Twitter:
This technique is hardly new. Coke, in the 90s, tried out a new product – OK Soda. It was a pretty ham-fisted attempt to court Gen X, by releasing a grey, drab product that was branded as just ‘OK’. There were numbers you could call to listen to messages about being OK and talk about how disillusioned you were. Their postmodern take on advertising is more or less an attempt at meta-advertising; see also Oasis’ ‘not-a-campaign-campaign’, or Sprite’s LeBron ‘Drink Sprite’ campaign, which featured LeBron James in a Brechtian campaign video, telling the audience ‘I’d never tell you to drink Sprite. Even if I was in a commercial for Sprite. Which I am. Or you were watching it – which you are. No matter what the cue card says’. The advert breaks the fourth wall constantly – we see the cue card, and LeBron James is occasionally told by the director to ‘Say it, man!’.
This sort of thing – the ‘relatable’ advert – has been dredged back up by various corporate Twitter accounts. Brands are tweeting like depressed millennials, in a tone that actively implies they’re going to commit suicide, in an attempt to sell us more fucking Sunny Delight. Good advertising tends to tap into a cultural moment, to engage lucidly with the world as it is. There’s a reason that ‘I’d Like To Buy The World A Coke’ came amid hippie idealism in 1971. What does it say about our current psychic landscape that the most effective thing marketers can think to do is to tell us all how sad they are?
At the same time as telling us how depressed they are, brands are also telling us about how they hate the system, too. US meat product ‘Steak-umm’ tweeted out this: ‘why are so many young people flocking to brands on social media for love, guidance, and attention? I’ll tell you why. they’re isolated from real communities, working service jobs they hate while barely making ends meat [sic] and are living w/ unchecked personal/mental health problems’.
That was put out by their maverick social media manager, Nathan Allebach, who ‘fell into’ the role by taking a job at an ad agency owned by his father, Allebach Communications (which, of course, makes him the perfect candidate to talk about how terrible it is that young people are working service jobs they hate – after all, if these young people had any sense, they’d quit their service jobs and go and work in their father’s agency).
After Steak-umm’s Twitter account put out a viral tweet seemingly bemoaning capitalism, in October, Mel Magazine reported that Steak-umm sales have increased since Allebach took charge of the company’s Twitter account, and The Atlantic staff writer Taylor Lorenz told the publication, “We’re in this dark time culturally, and it’s hard to relate to young people unless you go full-on depression mode.” The solution for ‘depression mode’ is simple, as Steak-umm’s Twitter reminds us: ‘if you’re tired of being alone then buy some Steak-umm. make some cheesesteaks. cover your couches in them. and your bed. your walls. become a beacon of beef and invite the world to bask in your glory’
This does seem to make sense. After all, one of the effects of social media has been the way it encourages the development of a ‘personal brand’. These, of course, have always existed, but neoliberalism’s ethos of being always-on and always-productive has upped the stakes. The era of #content has encouraged changes in our curation of what we show to others. One of the reactions to this is manifesting as ‘sadposting’ – people posting candidly, funnily, and ironically about their failing mental health, perhaps because NHS waiting lists for therapy are getting longer and longer, and it is getting harder and harder to get a timely GP appointment. Having been sold on the idea that millennials want relatability and values by a thousand focus groups, quasi-suicidality might actually be an effective tool for brands, given the engagement metrics it gets.
There are two good reasons to care about this from the left perspective. The first is considering the trend as an exemplar of ideology. After all, one of the most effective mutations of contemporary postmodern capitalism is its ability to sell resistance to itself as a consumer item. The example Slavoj Žižek tends to give for this is quite a good one – Starbucks. I go in to buy a latte, and feel bad about my status as a consumer. Not to worry! For 30p extra Starbucks will perform my penitence for me, and donate to the Rainforest Alliance or plant some trees. In this way, I can consume as much as I want, and have activism done for me – it’s even built into the price.
Through the trend of brands playing at depression, we see this taken to its next step. Brands are not merely selling me resistance to brands, they’re reselling me my own despair and powerlessness as a commodity. Here, brands are doing the work of ideology on three fronts. First, they are humanising themselves and in doing so normalising depression. Two – and this follows on – they are thus constraining this depressive mode of being, preventing it from becoming anger, which could then be turned against the system. Three – and this is the grimmest – they are doing this by performing my mental health concern for me. They are consoling other ‘suicidal’ brands in a pale imitation of the way that many millennials will, at some point, find themselves having to console a friend or loved one. They’re being concerned about mental health for me, so I can engage with them and feel like I’ve engaged with battling the phenomenon of mental ill-health.
Depression, as Mark Fisher wrote, can often be the end result of ‘the privatisation of stress… because trade unions are no longer as effective as they were, our first recourse when we’re placed under extra stress… is to go and get antidepressants or therapy’. Of course, under this model, it is less than surprising that the same corporations who lobby for the kind of conditions that are bringing about our generation’s melancholia are now selling our own sadness back to us. Since the 1980s, we are witnessing the transformation of depression from being a bug in the system to a feature. Depression often can manifest as anhedonia, which is somewhat ameliorated by the constant stimulation of late capitalism, which provides constant small bursts of pleasure. Of course, it’s these small bursts of pleasure that provide the lifeblood of social media companies, which has been discussed in myriad articles examining the dopamine loop that tech companies are tapping into. If everyone’s depressed, what could be more valuable than turning that malaise into profit, into one of the many small pleasures that make up the background radiation of the apocalyptic mindscape of late capital?
It’s one of the most – if you will – depressing trends in advertising, and one I suspect will persist throughout 2019. However, it does leave those of us on the left with an urgent political project. So much of this depression is political, caused by the socio-economic conditions of austerity and the aftermath of the global financial crisis. If it is becoming okay for brands to talk about how ill we all are, it really ought to be the business of our political figures. Of course, we should talk about fairness, and equality, and economic justice. But we also should be talking about how the lack of these things isn’t just unfair, or making us physically ill, but also damaging us in an affective sense, corroding our ability to feel good. In short, channelling our collective depression away from brands and into real anger is crucial for any left project. We need to work towards a project as transformative as the New Deal if we are to break out of our own Great Depression.