When was the last time Coca-Cola did anything nice for you?
People tend to talk to brands on the internet like they might have lost their virginity to them. They very well may have—an empty bag of @Doritos under the mattress or in the parking lot of a @McDonalds—but it's a one-way relationship. Your sister's face has never appeared on a highway billboard, but Nestlé and Burger King and motherfucking Denny's show up in the same streams as your loved ones.
This is the business model of the social web. Someone has to pay for the services we use to keep in touch with our friends, after all. On Facebook, the button to "like" a brand (like a brand!) is functionally identical to "liking" another person. The vast, awful landscape of Brand Twitter has become a playground for social media managers to act like virtual tweens. The prevailing online marketing strategy for brands in 2015 is to blend in with the children, become just another bae to fave and retweet.
It shouldn't have to be said out loud to sentient human beings that this is bad. But it is. It is sinister and bad and says a lot about how we have collectively lost our minds as a species. I'm afraid and sad for everyone.
Last week, a disconcerting group of actual flesh-and-blood humans felt bad for a corporation, in public. Real people poured the kind of empathy and anguish that's historically been reserved for other real people upon a multinational conglomerate worth billions of dollars that sells liquid fructose poison and has a history of literally enslaving impoverished workers.
It all began, appropriately, during the Super Bowl. The Coca-Cola Company spent a ridiculous sum of money during America's No. 1 National Pastime on the evening's most cynical advertising blitz: the "MakeItHappy" campaign. The premise was simple and also dumb: the internet is a mean place, and Coca-Cola was going to try make the internet a nice place. It was attempting to be the "I'd like to buy the world a Coke" for our modern digital idiot age: The company created a Twitter bot to take "mean" tweets and reformat their words into a cartoon rabbit playing the drums, or a cat. With this, the toxic web would be steam-cleaned, or something. It was an act of philanthropy, no?
Well, of course not—like all forms of advertising in the history of the advertising business, Coke's happiness campaign was designed to strengthen the goodwill associated with its trademark and presumably trick you into buying more Coke. It's possible that a handful of people at the Coca-Cola Corporation decided to create this advertising campaign because they genuinely want to "reduce meanness" or "increase positivity" (the advertising industry rewards the stupid and earnest). But, ultimately, they have one job, and it's to sell Coke. They are not social workers. They are not high school counselors. They are salespeople. They might incidentally think meanness is a bad thing, in the same way we're all incidentally opposed to murder.
So, in the hopes of making a minor point about the automated vacuum at the heart of Coke's cynical anti-meanness push, we built a bot to tweet Mein Kampf through Coke's automated positivity generator. (Fun behind-the-scenes fact: We pulled the text from Rap Genius.) We assumed that the response to our little stunt would be largely apathetic—not only was our point obvious and slight, but in tweeting hateful sentiment at @CocaCola, we were doing exactly what the marketing campaign had asked us to do.
And then Coca-Cola, slow-witted and cowardly like all global megabrands, killed its bot, and suddenly countless people across the internet were aghast. We hadn't thrown a tiny wrench into the slickly oiled workings of a $3 billion marketing operation, we'd embarrassed someone's pal. Someone's pal who was just trying to do some good online! We'd brought negativity into the positive sphere of Coke-swilling. For something totally devoid of humanity, Coca-Cola—a brutish company that condones slave labor and anti-union kidnapping and murder and whose CEO netted $30 million in 2012—was able to muster levels of smarmy cybertears not seen since Kony's reign of terror with its Twitter stunt.
Human beings—including journalists—flocked to Coke's side. The Verge sobbed that we'd "ruined" Coke's "courage and optimism," AdWeek called our work a "debacle," and Coke itself feigned dismay: "It's unfortunate Gawker made it a mission to break the system, and the content they used to do it is appalling." "Have a Coke and a—frown," bleated some dunce at USA Today. Coca Cola's rough approximation of humanity had made an enormous impression, and its drinkers and friends took a stand. No more, they tweet-chanted in unison, no more unkind words for this maker of sweet liquid toxins.
What's been lost in the friendification of corporate brands is that by their very nature of brand-ness, brands are diametrically opposed to our interests as humans. They exist solely to distract, deceive, and manipulate us out of our money—and in the case of Coca Cola, freely dispense diabetes and obesity. There is nothing relatable in a brand. It's an entity designed for the single purpose of extracting money from you by any legal means, no matter if you don't need or even want what's being sold. Even if the thing being sold is very, very bad for you—the brand will persuade you it's silken and lovely. A brand will systematically and perpetually convince you that your best interests are incorrect—this is the behavior of an abusive partner, not a friend. Not even a stranger! Brands hate you.
And still, people love slobbering all over branded membranes. It's easy to do so, and there's always the rare chance you'll get something free. PepsiCo has over 34 million fans on Facebook—that's more than 34 million people who have voluntarily placed advertising messages from PepsiCo in their newsfeeds, alongside mom and bae and Brian from hockey practice. More than a million people have made a similar life decision with Mr. Clean, more than 300,000 people are Facebook friends with Jimmy Dean Sausages and Kleenex, and when world historical nadir Denny's Diner (185,000 Twitter followers) snowballs youth culture into its adherents' greasy mouths, it racks up hundreds or thousands of favorites and retweets. Brands aren't forcing themselves on us—we're standing around with our pants undone and our tongues wagging out. We make it easy for brands to succeed. This is corporate America today. We are their willing, unpaid flacks.
But social media will always be an incongruous and gross place for brands to mingle, because all brands are inherently psychopathic. A company does not have feelings. It will never love you. It does not love its workers. It likely screws them over. Think about that the next time you tweet at a brand, or defend one online. Treating brands like buddies isn't just embarrassing for all parties—sympathy for a brand is antipathy for all humans. The great friending of the brand undermines the vital skepticism of corporate America and capitalism altogether. It's horrid enough that our laws treat corporations as people—to treat them as personal friends is just rotten.
Image by Jim Cooke