The daily dose of theory on the Internet

After Google announced its transformation into Alphabet a couple of years ago, Donald Trump ran an anti-Google campaign, even suggesting a sort of “Google death penalty” for any remaining monopolies in America. Maybe it was just a prank on Twitter, but it reminded many people that when it comes to brand loyalty, the Internet has become a very persuasive “libertarian” with far-reaching consequences.

That was exactly the reaction that Old Spice had in the early days of social media when it targeted men in viral videos with a targeted marketing message. Its advertising consisted of, say, a scene from Shakespeare’s Macbeth performed by a bald Colin Farrell. In just two hours, the video had been viewed a million times. It worked in making men think that they could create the rest of their lives like that without even looking. The Internet, in fact, made it so easy to market on it that by 2017, that campaign had been copied by more than a hundred different companies, all aiming to replicate the game to the letter.

These days, you see a similar influence on women — “we love this,” “we love that” — in adverts. “More than half of women pay more attention to what’s on the internet than what’s on TV. According to the adtech company Juniper Research, digital is the ‘second screen’ for women, with 73 percent claiming that when they aren’t watching TV, they’re focused on what’s online.”

But back to those social-media fads: see: the hipster cocktail, the avocado toast, the avocado on toast, the political encyclopedia.

I’d suggest that these brand fads originate with Silicon Valley, and what those tech companies often want is to cash in on a sort of marketing fad before it has fully metastasized into a brand phenomenon. So they create fake products for market and proclaim them to be totally unique.

There is a great example of that phenomenon among tech firms themselves, with Facebook using the importance of mobile phones as a “mobile funnel” in their advertising campaigns. On desktop, people go to a website, then scroll, and finally return to it. But with a mobile phone, which would have been your first address back in the morning, all you do is move through the mobile funnel. All through the morning, when you were busy elsewhere, you were trying to reach the next person who was on the other side of the mobile funnel.

Sure, this advertising strategy has disastrous political consequences, but it has the minor advantage of effectively talking about what a brand sees as the future. There is every chance that the future will be on Facebook’s terms. Some sort of nostalgia might come about, but Facebook is basically an archive of your past. This might excite young people to check it out, but it won’t encourage them to do anything else with their lives, not even yet, not even in 2025.

Or you might see an alternative brand fad emerge in the meantime, say, like the rainbow bagel. The rainbow bagel, I believe, is mostly a parody of junk food commercials and an elaboration of the “canvas bagel” trend, in which you roll a plain bagel out with lots of decorations, hoping to stand out from the army of plain bagels now littering restaurant menus across the U.S. to such a degree that customers forget that you’re only using the basic ingredients of one single bagel.

On the day after the New York Times article of the week on artificial intelligence was published, I got an email, obviously trying to capitalise on the short attention span of a one-time news junkie and to make the overhyped and already-viral backlash to the fear machine go viral. I did not reply, simply being polite. It may never have gone viral. But I know that some very dedicated and socially alert readers will only have to read the subject line of an email when they are ready to support a key fact in the trending discussions in the real world.

Maybe the future of fads will be how to generate awareness of something they like in an abbreviated form of 140 characters or fewer. “What I really like is Alexa,” or “The Rainbow Bagel is the last great thing,” or whatever the unexpected topic is in a future social-media fad. I reckon that they may have earned it, though.

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