February 1, 2023

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10 Internet Culture Moments That Brands Didn’t Ruin in 2022

The social media masses are on a constant mission to dismantle the digital hierarchy.

Every time the wealthy capitalize on a trend to brandish their glamorous lifestyles, it is accompanied by a counter movement where an army of average Joes fight back by finding humor in the quirks of a modest lifestyle.

The phrase “Things in my home that just make sense” has been used to showcase high-end appliances sitting in multi-million-dollar homes. But the concept has also been adapted by middle-class Americans who poke fun at their less appealing living situations, like having to cut out the side of their bathroom door so it can open past the toilet. 

When brands hopped on this trend, they used it to craft a product catalog, listing the items that “just make sense” for you to buy from their online storefronts. But consumers prioritize education and entertainment on social media by rejecting content that is solely self-promotional. Today’s winning accounts are unafraid to lean into a healthy amount of self-deprecation, and marketers missed an opportunity to use this trend to highlight the unromantic elements of their brands. 

“When brands tap into viral trends, they try to change them too much,” said independent agency Johannes Leonardo copywriter Chris Chance, who noted he learned about the creative process through growing up on the internet and making memes. “If the content is going to feel corporate, there is no point in making it at all.” 

From sexualizing candy bars to poking fun at vocal fry, here are 10 moments when brands engaged with internet culture without spoiling the user experience.

1. Kung Fu Tea satirizes TikTok marketing

Brands interjecting themselves into trends that have nothing to do with them is a great way to lose customers, but introducing a social strategy that is deliberately lazy, random and unoriginal can also keep the internet entertained. After users started pairing compilations of “fail videos” with the intro sequence to Cali Swag District’s “Teach Me How to Dougie,” Kung Fu Tea posted a TikTok that began by mimicking this format but then interjected random product shots. This method, which was also picked up by Harry Styles’ nail polish brand Pleasing, doesn’t try to trick anyone.

Takeaway: Instead of denying that they’re ultimately on TikTok to sell stuff, these brands pulled out a satirical strategy that pokes fun at both invasive marketing and brands that try too hard to hide their agenda. 

2. Brands ditch the self-importance 

Marketers are successful on social media when they understand the importance of humility. Taco Bell internalized this concept by hiring a relentless and unapologetic critic of the brand—Doja Cat—as the face of recent campaigns. Duolingo’s long running bit is that its app reminders are overly aggressive, and RyanAir has indirectly admitted that its affordability is the only thing keeping customers around. 

Takeaway: Just as self-deprecating humor from users is more universally appealing than overly curated content, brands garner attention on social platforms when they surprise consumers with charming unprofessionalism. 

3. Netflix respectfully interrupts an HBO show

Content around The White Lotus, an HBO comedy-drama that documents the disturbing journeys of resort guests, has been hijacking social media feeds for weeks. One particularly talked about scene entails Jennifer Coolidge announcing “The gays are trying to murder me,” which prompted Netflix to draw attention to the actress’ related sentiment in the streaming service’s rom-com “Single All the Way.”

Takeaway: The branded snark that was once seen as innovative now feels cringe-worthy, making Netflix’s understated and indirect approach to engaging with a competitor effective. 

4. Chipotle serves the corn kid 

Drawn from clips of an interview by Recess Therapy, an account dedicated to conversations with children in New York, 7-year-old Tariq’s passion for corn made for a universally-adored pop culture moment. The original clip was then remixed into a song, which brands across TikTok used to promote their own products. Chipotle invited Tariq to one of its restaurants and filmed him as he moved down the line and rejects every menu item except for corn.

Takeaway: While quickly jumping on social media trends is tempting, sometimes the brands that take a second to think through their strategies create the most memorable content.

5. Popeyes protects a pop star 

When an audience member chucked two chicken nuggets at Harry Styles during a Madison Square Garden concert, Popeyes partnered with independent creative agency GUT to protect the pescatarian pop star from more unsolicited exposure to poultry. The brand dressed fans in its uniforms with signs like “No air time for this nugget” and “It’s love that chicken, not throw that chicken” to plant across TikTok.

Takeaway: By efficiently establishing itself as the antidote to an evidently disposable product, Popeyes delighted fans when it unexpectedly snuck itself into a cultural moment that aligned with the brand. 

6. The Flyers’ muse pokes fun at a viral podcast clip

When Call Her Daddy podcast host Alex Cooper invited Uncut Gems actress Julia Fox into the studio, the internet was quick to call out Fox’s vocal fry and make a meme of her belief that she was the sole inspiration behind the film. Since the Philadelphia Flyers’ Gritty is the internet’s most beloved mascot and can pretty much get away with anything, he was interjected into a conversation that had nothing to do with him and it was completely excusable.

Takeaway: Julia Fox and orange creatures are two notably unconventional characters, so combining the two made for a random social moment that was simple and memorable while lacking nauseating self-promotion. 

7. Snickers feeds into dirty humor 

In April, rumors surfaced that the chocolate ripples on the Snickers bar would be replaced with an uncomfortably smooth surface. The design has long been declared to resemble genital veins, which means Twitter users refused to stay silent about the alleged product alteration. After a complete uproar across the platform, the brand reassured fans that the aesthetic of its product would remain the same.

Takeaway: Rogue social media managers, who mimic the energy of the Pabst Blue Ribbon employee (without going quite so far), make consumers feel like the brands they engage with are estranged from the confines of corporate America. 

8. Lindsay Lohan partners with Pepsi

When TikTok users started posting videos mixing cola drinks with milk or creamer and calling it “dirty soda,” Pepsi interjected by bringing back the term “Pilk,” which debuted in the 1970s sitcom Laverne and Shirley.

Takeaway: By pairing a zany beverage fad with a celebrity who has always been difficult to ignore, Pepsi delicately redirected a conversation that included the entire soda industry back to its brand. 

9. Tumblr mocks Musk 

The impending demise of Twitter poses an opportunity for competing platforms to attract new users, but that makes for a complicated feat when Musk bans their presence on his browning turf. When Twitter officially released a list of platforms that would be banned and Tumblr wasn’t on the list, the platform played into its questionable relevancy.

Takeaway: Tumblr used Twitter to modestly insert itself back into the conversation after a significant hiatus, and with this strategy comes a level of self-awareness that the masses can appreciate.

10. IHop runs to the grocery aisle 

If a brand wants to hop on a trend two years after its peak, it needs to have a good reason for the hold up. The pancake house partnered with General Mills, a brand that typically keeps consumers at home for breakfast instead of inside their restaurants, for a collaboration featuring mini Pancake-shaped pieces with blueberry and syrup flavoring that was completely inspired by social listening.

Takeaway: By launching an original product, iHop and General Mills demonstrated that brands taking their time to tap into internet culture can elicit consumer nostalgia and respect.