Politics

Netflix and Kill: Brands Talking to Each Other Is Freaky AF

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Not that any month is a sane month on the internet, but October 2018 was particularly ferocious. As Brett Kavanaugh’s inflammatory Supreme Court hearings tore the country asunder, a curious undercurrent developed, wherein other people with the name Brett Kavanaugh meekly raised their hands on Twitter as if to be like, “Sorry for existing, but can you lay off me, please?” 

Individuals by the name of Susan Collins (not the senator from Maine), Michael Cohen (not the now-imprisoned Trump fixer), and Alex Jones (not the conspiracy theorist and probable fraud) weighed in, and the conversation snowballed until it elicited pithy sympathy cards from Jason Alexanders, Chris Pratts, and even a Michael Bolton, whose life has probably been extremely weird at times.

“Don’t worry- it will all come to an end eventually,” tweeted one Scott Pruitt, who was not the disgraced former EPA administrator. 

It did — sadly, maybe. But a year later, we have a sort of inverse phenomenon spurred by a deviously clever corporate tweet. “what’s something you can say during sex but also when you manage a brand twitter account?” @netflix asked last Thursday. Unlike those beaten-down individuals whose names suddenly became no longer their own — and that can happen to any of us, at any time! — this became a circle jerk of corporate marketing.

Unquestionably, some of them are wildly funny. Arby’s, probably feeling at least some heat from Nihilist Arby’s, had a great one.

It got a little nuts. Pepsi (“We prefer it in the can”), Kettle Chips (“You can go elbow deep in me”), and the Tampa Theatre (“Not bad for a 93-year-old organ, huh?”) did well. “We’re dimming the lights for takeoff,” Aer Lingus replied, nicely skipping the low-hanging fruit. AfterBuzz TV condensed the internet to its inevitable singularity with “Still not sure how Jeff Goldblum ended up here…” Kum and Go, the Midwestern gas station whose pumps every coastal gay has taken a selfie in front of, didn’t take the bait.

It’s almost like watching the video for Band Aid’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” in which you see all your favorite UK pop stars of the mid-’80s plus Phil Collins having a good time for a patronizing/noble cause. The whole thing won the internet. But considering how Saturday was also the six-year anniversary of this amazing clunker, you have to remember that each of these accounts is maintained by a person or a team, each of whom is one mistake away from termination, all the time. Their job is to stay in the public eye without incurring the universe’s collective wrath by misusing cultural references you’re too unhip to fully grasp, so the magic of that Netflix thread was in creating a bubble or — admit it, cause it’s true — a safe space for half the listings on the New York Stock Exchange to let loose. It was like watching corporations take MDMA and disrobe.

But an orgy of branding is an orgy of branding, and that it occurred during the holiday-season shopping climax is surely no coincidence. Just how much shareholder value was conjured into existence after Netflix’s heart grew three sizes that day is impossible to tell, but a lot of people were cheering for a lot of brands. The once-insurmountable wall between advertising and news has long blurred into a demilitarized zone of content, and now we’re [Thriller-era Michael Jackson eating popcorn gif]’ing our way to becoming an audience for a show that consists of nothing but late capitalist meta-chatter. It wasn’t so long ago that the very idea of Hot Pockets having a Twitter presence felt like slightly sad and desperate, but how much cooler do they look for participating?

“Lighten the fuck up, comrade” is an easy response to all this, but this is a new landscape for marketing — a new genre, even. While we gleefully hand over our data to algorithms in the form of 10-year challenges — which may be a surveillance-state nightmare or nothing of the sort — the people who run the universe are now just amusing one another and we’re totally enthralled. After all, the bot-riddled internet is full of fake everything, so at least we can be reasonably sure that what we’re watching is real.

Insofar as anything is real, we should add. We’ve long known that people can’t differentiate native advertising from editorial, but exercises like this work hard to erode whatever’s left. And while people fret about automation destroying more jobs than it can create on an accelerating curve, the real worry may be devices or other autonomous becoming consumers in their own right while actual humans get by on the purchasing power of our sad little UBI. It’s purely speculative, of course, but a billionaire-run future of brands laughing together while the rest of us stare on suddenly seems a little more plausible.

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Peter Lawrence Kane

Peter Lawrence Kane

Peter Lawrence Kane is a total gaylord who was the editor of SF Weekly for kind of a while. His goal is to get to every national park before he turns 40, but they're starting to get really remote now.