Do you feel the fatigue from Brand Twitter lately? That certain punchiness and “brand voice” that your favorite hotdog or yogurt brand has taken on lately is becoming tiresome. And in some cases, cruel.

If 2022 were to end today, at least we had the memes. We opened the year with the social media manager of Pabst Blue Ribbon declaring that everyone should “eat ass,” and now we have TikTok sleuths trying to cancel West Elm Caleb. Worse still — brands jumping into the fray. (If you’re out of the loop on either of these micro-viral moments in culture, though whose culture, is still unclear, you can catch up here and here.)

In the case of West Elm Caleb, a real person is at the center of the controversy. On Friday, Hellman’s Mayo waded into the social commentary with the following tweet:

At first, it seems funny. Innocuous. But then it grates against you the wrong way. Should I care what my mayo thinks about one bad actor in the landscape of modern dating? Do we care that they’re contributing to the pile-on happening on Twitter where accounts are being blocked for doxxing Caleb?

George Carlin said it best: “Comedy has traditionally picked on people in power, or people who abuse their power... [not those who are] underdogs.“ The market cap of Unilever, the parent company of Hellman’s brand, is, very likely, larger than that of Caleb’s net worth.

When Unilever wades into the fight against Caleb, it’s Caleb who is the underdog.

In short, brands shouldn’t punch down.

The Social Media Performance Art Spectrum:

Brand-up comedians

In today’s social media climate, brands have to exist to be much more than a shill for their products. The “total brand experience” means that channel-specific voices emerge. The NFL (and its teams) rebranded their TikTok accounts in solidarity with creator Emily Zugay’s sarcastic redesigns. Wendy’s shows off their ability to “roast” those who are brave enough to invite it upon themselves.

Social media has become a form of improv comedy club for consumers: a place to be entertained, and for brands to be part of the cultural zeitgeist, while not really engaging in sales-like behavior.

This is something predicted by our Nine by Nine report along two vectors: brands are increasingly becoming performance art while attempting to appeal to group dynamic outrage. They simultaneously struggle for cultural significance while supply chains create product forecast shortfalls.

Or, as we said it in our opener to this year’s Nine by Nine:

So we find ourselves in the midst of an inflection point: a plenitude of brands, with very little to sell, eager to continue to tell their stories and engage their communities, but unable to do so purely through Commerce. If a brand has nothing to sell, do they have anything to say?

The need to fill space online can also be blamed on the algorithmic timeline. In order to continue to have organic reach, you need many posts and interactions. What kind of content spurs interaction? The offbeat, absurd, wacky, and the in-joke. Whatever elicits feedback and interaction is what brands now rely on to continue to achieve reach.

This requirement to be “very online” for brands creates a new type of behavior, fueled by a new type of anxiety. Algorithm anxiety keeps social media managers on the hamster wheel, in constant pursuit of engagement. From Insiders #108:

It seems to me then, that Algorithm Anxiety has similar symptoms and effects as psycho-spiritual stressors. We've created new invisible gods whose blessings are fleeting, and whose curses are everlasting.

If you deny the gods their tweet offering today, you’ll receive no tweet blessing from them tomorrow. So today we sacrifice Caleb. [Praise be].

Art vs Commerce

Stand-up comedians are artists. Stand-up comedians often workshop material in safety: they host private shows, they do small club dates. They can get feedback on what might be over the line, what might be pushing the line (or in Chamath’s case, what’s “under the line”). The present era of social media means that all content gets published, period. But is this how artists behave? Artists refine, hone, and chip away.

It reminds me of a Malcolm Gladwell interview with legendary producer Rick Rubin: as a writer in trade, nothing is wasted. It all gets put to use—various notes, manuscripts, and fragments are each steadily repurposed and put to use in the end product. But not artists. Artists are very different, they produce waste. Many song ideas, lyrics, interludes, and stanzas all eventually laid to waste as the honing process zeroes in on essentiality.

Brand Twitter thinks they’re stand-up comedians when, in reality, they’re trade association writers. Every piece of material must be used. And that’s what makes an amorphous blob of a brand making social commentary on a real-life human being so gross. Suppose that Caleb was to harm himself?

Just like comedians, brands cross the line when they punch down.

Open to criticism

The follow-on from the Hellman’s tweet is a masterclass in niche social group dynamics. While Hellman’s attempts relevance, it finds itself now having to appeal to people with medical conditions that cause them to experience mayo as being spicy. They have now inadvertently criticized a small group with a medical condition as being lumped in with a cringe e-Dater. This is what is colloquially referred to as “not a good look.” Hellman’s response to Tommy T: blocking the user.

Following closely behind performance art is absurdism. Brands looking to grow their twitticisms beyond the social media platform will undoubtedly dabble in Dada-esque absurdity.

It used to be that we’d expect these shenanigans once per year from consumer brands. Now every day is April Fool’s.

Maybe we weren’t meant to have humorous interactions with every brand that exists on the supermarket shelf. Maybe that kind of public discourse quickly devolves into cheap shot insult comedy. Maybe the gladiator arena of the current environment causes us to cheer on the bloodsport, and forget the humanity of the people at the center.

Maybe brands shouldn’t punch down.