The civil defamation case between actors Johnny Depp and Amber Heard completely dominated social media in the early half of 2022. What was a deeply upsetting and personal case about alleged domestic violence in a disintegrated marriage became something public and superficial, overshadowed by memes and TikTok edits showing only snippets of an intensely upsetting story. Public obsession with the trial was so pervasive that it could be found everywhere online and, as it turns out, ordinary people were not the only ones overstepping in voicing their opinions. Brands such as Duolingo have weighed in with tongue-in-cheek tiktoks and comments that have raked in millions of likes and views. Aside from the obvious fact that these brands were in no way part of the official legal proceedings, this inappropriate brand engagement in internet discourse points to a worrying trend, one that has its roots in our own relationship with the internet.
Given that there has been no learning manual, no guide as to how to navigate the new waters we as a society have found ourselves in, it is unsurprising that mistakes have been made, often despite good intentions.
In the less than 50 years since the internet’s invention, its rapid growth has been nothing short of alarming. Most if not all of our lives are dependent to some degree on the internet and its many tools. Given that there has been no learning manual, no guide as to how to navigate the new waters we as a society have found ourselves in, it is unsurprising that mistakes have been made, often despite good intentions. Our lives are gradually becoming more online every day, with younger generations having access to the internet and social media at an earlier age with every year that passes. For the majority of my primary school years, my peers and I did not have the same exposure to social media as the generation that has followed us. Among other things, this has greatly influenced how we engage with brands and advertising. Young people are no longer watching live TV, with its ad breaks, as their primary form of entertainment. Nowadays it’s less common to read magazines or newspapers and, thanks to the recent pandemic, our cinema experiences have been greatly reduced over the past two years. Instead, our entertainment is primarily online and, in recent years, increasingly on social media.
In response to this change, brands have raced to social media to connect with younger consumers in a way that feels natural. This is where influencers, or content creators, come into play. What started as a small subculture, with YouTube playing home to the original generation of vloggers, has expanded massively. Now there is an online community overflowing with popular vloggers and influencers promoting everything under the sun, including books, gaming and even different lifestyles. These people, known as “influencers”, are hugely popular, with a much larger reach and more power than many people realise. Brands are beginning to catch on to this opportunity and are finally recognising online creators as the promising business people they are.
While the comment sections of Emma Chamberlain’s YouTube videos are overflowing with comments lauding how realistic and “comforting” her videos are, viewers appear to have forgotten that she is also an ambassador for luxury brands like Louis Vuitton and Cartier, with a net worth of $12 million. Brands have begun to utilise influencers like Chamberlain in their marketing, but is it ethical to use, and indeed to act as, an asset that people, particularly young and impressionable viewers, feel they have a personal relationship with?
In its definition of “parasocial relationship”, Oxford Reference describes it as a one sided relationship between audiences and performers and describes a fostered “illusion of intimacy”.
Influencers are not just celebrities to people, they are friends and role models. In its definition of a “parasocial relationship”, Oxford Reference describes it as a one sided relationship between audiences and performers, noting a fostered “illusion of intimacy”. Influencers encourage this illusion to create a bond with their audience, one which usually leads to their fans supporting them financially by purchasing their merchandise or using their discount codes with brand sponsors. Ultimately, influencers are trying to sell a product and, on a deeper level, influencers are their own product. Generally, this is not intended maliciously. After all, they too are (or were) normal people with personal lives and bills to pay. In fact, it has been encouraging to see a largely creative and somewhat independent industry grow in popularity. Audiences don’t seem to either know or care that they are receiving advertisements from these posts and videos. It is reflective of the running gag in The Truman Show (1998) in which an oblivious man’s life is televised 24/7, with his wife routinely advertising products, all while he remains unaware of the artificiality of his life. This is how marketing is consumed by younger generations: lifestyle videos opening with someone making a morning coffee, the coffee brand always named and described enthusiastically. When do unaware audiences cross the line into mindless consumers? Is there even a difference between the two anymore? Consumers seem to think that it doesn’t matter, not when they feel that they are supporting a friend.
Like influencers, brands are attempting to package consumerism in our lives in such a way that we will be unaware that it even exists.
It is this illusion of intimacy that brands are now trying to capitalise on and emulate, as seen when Duolingo commented on a lighthearted TikTok about the Depp-Heard case as though they were an individual, not an international company. Although it may seem innocent and jovial when viewed as a light-hearted joke, there is an unsettling undercurrent to be found here. Like influencers, brands are attempting to package consumerism in our lives so discreetly that we will be unaware it even exists. How many times have you watched a TikTok or reel and realised partway through that it was actually an ad? While this deception can be waved away to some degree for influencers, brands are not actually the quirky, fun persona they portray on social media. While yes, the person writing those tweets may be an intern or marketing employee who does have bills to pay, more often than not they are representing a larger company whose actions behind closed doors do not reflect the personality it has cultivated online.
If you’ve ever been active on social media during June (LGBTQ+ Pride Month) you have no doubt seen “corporate pride” in action: companies donning rainbow colours and inclusive slogans that are instantly dropped on July 1. Although it is the subject of constant (and justified) mockery, this corporate display of pride is not just something to be made fun of. It is a strategy that people are already buying into, one that will grow in efficiency as brands become more adept at navigating online marketing to a new consumer base.
What started as normal people trying their best to make a living creatively has morphed into corporations and consumerism leaking into every corner of the internet. If we are not aware of the reality of the media which we are consuming, it leaves us unable to make informed choices about our own lives. When people try to become brands and brands try to become people, we must ask ourselves where do we draw the line, and who should be held accountable.