How the personal tone of the internet age is dragging figures of authority down among us, and why that’s a very good thing.
‘Stop looking at my bottom,’ giggles your fruit juice carton at the breakfast table. Bleary eyed, you squint at this roguish patter, printed incongruously alongside the more familiar corporate trappings of an impassive barcode.
Unabashed, the smoothie continues its flirtation. ‘Did you hear about the two people who stole a calendar? They each got six months,’ it quips bizarrely, informing you that this is a ‘#dadjoke’. The primary-coloured logo smirks coquettishly; you frown.
What the flipping hell is going on? You wonder, reasonably. Why is this inanimate carton of pressed organic sustenance cavorting about with a chirpy personality and (you hate to admit) some excellent one-liners? Looking around desperately for reassurance, instead you’re met with a cacophony of printed friendship. The peanut butter confides chattily its sustainable heritage, the low-fat butter substitute tips a knowing hat to a recent cultural meme. All of it just wants to be your best mate.
It’s a trend known as ‘wackaging’, where your breakfast spreads chat to you about things like the weather and monumental life decisions. And yes, though the trend may grate, if it represents a world in which politicians and brands are now accessible where once they were aloof and unreachable, I’ll take it, #dadjokes and all. Just as long as we keep a grip on the power shift.
Clicks of recognition
The rise of accessible brands was born on the internet, a platform which demands familiarity. We respond best to content that we can identify with: anything which sets off a click of recognition. This explains why some content goes all-out viral, we’re talking more than man flu proportions, while some just flops quietly by the wayside. Why some web campaigns are the digital equivalent of Usain Bolt destroying 100m, while the rest would be more at home with you, me, and Hannah from Girls.
(Little click of recognition there maybe, hey? Nothing like a self-illustrating point.)
Thanks to this need for ‘something relatable’ teaming up with the short-form nature of the net, content ends up feeling very personal. Chatty, frisky and fun; a group of mates, several billion of us, down the pub.
When Cancer Research itself tried multiple times to set up a selfie fund- and awareness-raising campaign, few even glanced over from under their heavily-mascaraed lashes – but when it was borne from within, coming from ‘us’, people went absolutely, bare-faced nuts for it. It seems to work like Inception: the idea has to originate organically somewhere within the internet community (or at least seem like it does), to get us on board. We’re suspicious of and largely rejects attempts from without – those in authority, for example – to galvanize us.
As a result, from brands to politicians, the boundaries between us and them – the underdogs and the fat cats, the masses and the privileged few – are blurring.
Politicians, eager to leverage the cyber trend of the social which holds such huge influential sway, are tagging in on chatty informal updates – largely by means of enjoyably risible social media blunders. Yes, it is hilarious when Ed Balls tweets Ed Balls, and that we can all respond to Dave Cameron’s very-busy-and-important phone calls to Barack with our own selfies featuring fruit, dogs and wet-wipes. But there’s also an even better side to it than this surface high japery: It means those in authority have become readily accessible figures.
Taking the piss is no longer confined to subversive satirical pamphlets and the ‘educated elites’: we can all chip in. Rather than us at arm’s length, they’re now just desperately trying to keep up – which is great. They’re human and they’re reachable; it’s a similar story with brands.
Trend of the brand friend
Where once the consumer was just the impotent mug at the end of the production line, now, thanks to the internet, brands suddenly have to act like our mates to fit in.
Like an unpopular rich kid who by some unforeseen twist in circumstance had to give up the pony for state school, and now finds himself sat next to ‘that pleb’ he once ridiculed, they’ve taken to constantly posting jokes and informal updates, in a pitiful ingratiation attempt. As with politicians though, it’s not really working; we still only go really wild for the stuff that feels authentic, and most brands’ digital campaigns are a bit of a flop.
It’s vital that we now retain the upper hand that the internet has passed us. Sainsbury’s recently cooked up a storm of approval when its marketing team engaged in a fish-pun battle with a consumer on Twitter, for example, and wackaging seems quaint. But this is dodgy ground.
Why it matters
In the free market the idea is supposedly that the consumer is ‘sovereign’, economist Patrick Minford observed recently: the individual has total power and control.
But the reality of our commercial landscape is a complete power imbalance in favour of those at the top. With its bottomless advertising budgets, big business dominates the dupe that is the consumer. Its price-fixing cartels, in-built obsolesce, and general ubiquity leaves us pretty much powerless.
We live in a country where, journalist Nina Power has observed, “the richest 10% are now 100 times better off than the poorest, where consumerism predicated on personal debt has been pushed for years as the solution to a faltering economy, and where, according to the OECD, social mobility is worse than any other developed country”. Weird – doesn’t sound like a description of sovereigns to me?
The fat cats controlling the wealth are not our friends. They have enormous power over us and they don’t give a shit about us. In a way, the trend of the brand friend is the strongest slap in the face they could deliver.
Thanks to the internet, those in power have to pretend to be our buds now, or miss out on a massive carton-peddling/vote-courting opportunity. And it’s also thanks to the internet that we can now keep a grip on what they’re up to; it’s given us the tools to realign the balance a little, and if we stay on top of it, keep it that way.
So we need to keep interrogating – keeping ripping the piss out of banks and brands and politicians who attempt to engage us in twitterly banter, keep abreast of what ethical-or-otherwise stunts they’re playing, and keep demanding a higher standard of corporate comportment. If we can put this interrogation into practice through boycotts and protest, so much the better. Never let those beguiling smoothies, and all their other matey-branded packaged pals, seduce us.
As long as we can mobilise to criticise, via social media and petition platforms, holding authority to account is now accessible enough to be a hobby of the layman – just as it absolutely should be. Stop looking at your bottom? No big business, we won’t.
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