Posted on November 1, 2021 in Uncategorized

Stop Asking For Free Labor In Your Ads

It’s one thing when a corporation’s business account asks for interaction.

It’s another when they’re literally asking the fans to produce lyrics for them.

The Nature Of TikTok

Corporations, especially ones with mascots, want to be friends with you. They want you to love them, they want you to choose them over the store brand, and they want you to get warm fuzzies when you think of them. To do this, they want to distance themselves from their abstract representation (some corporation with an office in Illinois, some corporation with an office in Silicon Valley, some corporation…) and present you with the substitute. When older millennials think of McDonalds, they think of Ronald McDonald. When almost anyone pictures Wendy’s, they’re usually picturing the girl on the sign. The same goes for any number of products. Mascots represent the good parts of the brand, the part that customers interact with. It’s only natural that in a world with more and more visual media, the mascots would become a bigger and bigger part of campaign advertising.

Unfortunately, sometimes the brand overestimates the love for said mascot, and by extension, the brand – consumers are increasingly aware of the tactics brands use to get people to love them, and Mr. Peanut found this out the hard way when it asked fans to duet their mascot on TikTok… with real, serious labor.   

Interaction on TikTok

Bad campaigns happen on TikTok. Ironically, they often come from the companies with the most money to spend on advertising.

Small companies got it immediately, and companies with a reputation for subversive and unusual advertising got it immediately – TikTok is for interaction. Comments, “sounds”, duets, stitches, hashtags and more make TikTok an interaction paradise. Anything they produce for their account has to consider interaction. Meanwhile, corporate-giant marketing campaigns are really struggling to grasp the idea of an app that allows viewers to make fun of ads in real time, in front of other potential customers. Even now, the biggest companies are releasing ad campaigns that show a fundamental misunderstanding of the TikTok ecosystem.

The best example is McDonalds’ chicken sandwich campaign. Users were asked to repeat a phrase in time with the primary video, an attempt at encouraging interaction after a slew of plain, TV-ad style videos. This went off the rails almost immediately! The issue is that they asked for interaction, but didn’t consider what that interaction would look like – what is the other side getting out of duetting that video? Just repeating the phrase wasn’t fun. Users come to TikTok for a number of reasons, but the primary one is entertainment. When something isn’t entertaining, they make their own fun, and screw up the campaign by making videos too crass to show to children. You might say any advertising is good advertising – that is not always true.

Free Labor

When people make dances or duets to songs, they’re doing it because they like the song – they aren’t doing it for the singer or producer. If the singer asks people to participate, and they don’t do it carefully enough, it can come across as desperate, and have the exact opposite of the intended effect (it’s an open secret that some influencers can be sponsored to make dances for music, so it’s doubly desperate-looking to beg for interaction for free). One singer who comes to mind was comparing her music to Billie Eilish, and was upset that she wasn’t getting the views/streams she felt she deserved. While that by itself is just harmless kvetching, making said complaint online is likely to turn indifferent onlookers into spiteful non-fans. TikTok is surprisingly meritocratic – nobody owes you views for mediocre content, so why are you begging if your content is supposedly good?

The same goes for asking for free stuff from fans when the account itself is part of a megacorporation conglomerate. The issue is not in asking for interaction – it’s in how they ask for it, and what they ask for. If you could pay them… why are you begging creatives for free stuff?

Believe it or not, most not-chronically-online people do like it when big brands interact in good faith, or at least with the idea of profits tucked away behind good faith. See Gatorade’s community efforts in developing countries. Obviously, building those kids a better outdoor area entirely Gatorade-branded is good for profits in the long run, but in the short run, the company spent money so that kids could have something nice. Branded fun is supposed to at least pretend like the corporation cares about its customers beyond the money they spend.

When you take this principle online, it looks like ‘having fun’ coming before ‘brand exposure’. For example, one TikToker “redesigned” a bunch of brands using MSPaint, making them deliberately badly. Brands offered themselves up in her comments section for “Redesign”, and some even swapped out their profile pic for her updated version. The exposure to the brand name is happening in a way that’s not icky to the anti-big-business segment of TikTok. From a marketing perspective, that’s fantastic! Interacting with a willing, popular, grassroots account in a fun way is really the best you can ask for.

Mr. Peanut

All that said, TikTok’s young, artistic demographic doesn’t like it when a brand asks them to make them things for free. Artists are very aware that companies rely on art, but don’t value it – there’s a joke about “exposure bucks” because it’s so common to try and switch out money for something the company is already going to give the artist when they use the art in question, exposure.

Mr. Peanut’s account asked fans to produce lyrics for them over a simple piano track playing in the background. The caption reads “It’s National Nut Day, so naturally we’re gonna do something nuts, like letting you write our jingle [emojis of a whacky face and a peanut] Duet this to show us what you got [emoji of a microphone]”.

Notice the phrasing: we’ll let you write a jingle for us. It echoes the sentiment that it is a privilege to create the art they demand.

Again, users who make stuff voluntarily are not doing it because the original asked them to remix or write lyrics for them, they’re doing it for themselves, because doing it is fun, and the fans like it. Duet chains of opera singers and musicians adding on to a video that wouldn’t otherwise be music are totally different from doing that for a brand that could ask and exchange money, that could sponsor written lyrics… but wants people to do it for them for free. Of course, because it was a TikTok, nobody can tell what exactly they planned to do with the duets, or if they even planned to do anything with them – but the way copyright works, nobody wanted to make something good that they should have been compensated for only to have Mr. Peanut steal it.

It took some time, but once marketing professionals unearthed their contracts for jingles, duets made them look even worse – one Tik Toker revealed that she was paid 10,000$ and still owned 50% of a jingle she was professionally commissioned to create. Jingles take work. Sounding carefree is work. Mr. Peanut asking people to make them something useful and usable for free when the going rate is so high is just gross:

The worst part is that plenty of companies ask for fan contribution, they just do it with compensation. This is the kind of thing that sweepstakes used to be for: if we use your song, you can win money. An exchange of value is believed to have taken place, and fans who didn’t get their lyrics used still get to keep what they made most of the time. Mr. Peanut did not set up a reward system, leaving fans wondering what they would get out of it, much like the McDonald’s campaign but worse.

Even if they planned, cynically, for fans to write crass and unusable lyrics, they likely overestimated the benefits of TikTok users turning the campaign into a joke. The comments are laughing with the creator duetting with something too foul to use, at Mr. Peanut. The general sensation is that the company is not in on the joke, even when they think they are. Even if you think almost any brand exposure is good exposure… this is inefficient.

Mr. Peanut brand peanuts should have known better.