Brands getting down with the kids is the ultimate Weird Twitter.
Is it a cheese, or a cleverly disguised marketing exec? Image: See-ming Lee/Flickr
"How do you do, fellow kids?"
Its name taken from an appearance by Steve Buscemi in 30 Rock as part of an "especially young-looking" taskforce of undercover cops in schools, Reddit's r/fellowkids is a treasure trove of examples of what happens when "youth communications" strategies go bad. Cat memes are abused, "bae" is liberally employed, and creative directors in a boardroom somewhere invoke #YOLO to mortifying effect.
Nothing is more embarrassing—and more sinister—than a brand that tries to be down with the kids. And it is kids they're marketing to, whether or not they acknowledge it. A study launched this month, conducted across Europe over two years as part of Safer Internet Day found that among 3,500 nine to 16 year olds surveyed, 22 percent of the 9-10 year olds and 53 percent of the 11-12 year olds used Facebook, which has a policy against under-13s. One sample quote, attributed to a boy of 12, read "I had my Facebook account when I was 8 and my mom set it up for me."
There's something inevitable and very disconcerting about children joining social networks, composing public posts at an age when they are still learning the basics of spelling. Social platforms don't go specifically looking for underage users: Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, Tumblr, Snapchat, YouTube, and even LinkedIn all share an over-13s age policy. If seven is the "age of reason," it appears that social media has collectively decided on 13 as the age of self-promotion, selfie-taking, and just enough cynicism to get by.
I spent a year on Twitter and Facebook representing a brand of cheese
It's hard to imagine any 13-year-old excitedly signing up to LinkedIn on their birthday, but most other networks are viral among teens and children, for whom the fear of missing out is often strongest of all. Advertisers, like the social networks themselves, silently benefit from underage "Likes" but face a quandary in terms of publicly catering to them. Some make their Facebook and Twitter accounts specifically about speaking to parents (children's mass multiplayer game Club Penguin begins Facebook posts with "Hey parents!"). Others justify their presence with nostalgia value.
But many negotiate the dilemma of their invisible yet often very vocal underage users by trying to be universally appealing, emulating "Weird Twitter" at its most innocuous and daft. What makes under-13s laugh out loud doubles as stoner humour for adults: Witness the success of "random" humour used on the Skittles Twitter and Facebook feeds. Weird corporate Twitter, the attempts by companies to emulate counter-cultural online characters like @dril and @arealliveghost, remains an easy option for brands looking to humanise themselves.
I view these efforts with a certain self-loathing, because not very long ago I was a marketer. I spent a year on Twitter and Facebook representing a brand of cheese, trying to charm children into asking for the product for their school lunches. Days were spent compiling Powerpoints full of trends and catchwords and rewriting One Direction lyrics as tweets about cheese in a bid to make 12-year-old girls giggle.
Who has the time to spend online talking to a cheese, playing sponsored games, and taking part in long-winded competitions? A child, is the answer. Brands offer them some tiny amount of cachet, one extra follower: the training wheels for real social media interaction. It's a creepy dystopian world where the contents of your fridge speak to you, follow you home, and outstay their sell-by date by living on in your smartphone.
My time as a cheese taught me that the internet is run by pre-teen girls (they were clearly that young, from their profile pictures and dodgy spelling), and that their fandoms demarcate the geography of Twitter. That social media, all its self-promotion and factions and bitching, was made not for childish adults so much as for actual children.
I wondered if they guessed I wasn't really a cheese, whether they knew that behind every account is a junior exec or an intern
Strange things happen when you're trying to befriend thousands of cynical children on the internet. You bring your work home with you, checking Twitter and Facebook on weekends and off days. You dispense with the pretences applied to your personal accounts, where you desperately share Ad Land whitepapers in the hope of becoming a "thought leader." You try to be infinitely likable and linkable. You become the class clown you never were in school.
In the end, the guilt got to me, and I quit. I had started to have nightmares about being bullied by 12-year-olds on Twitter. I wondered if they guessed I wasn't really a cheese, whether they knew that behind every account is a junior exec or an intern who struggles to make sense of a generation not much younger than they are.
I spoke to Matthew Johnson of Media Smarts, a centre for digital literacy based in Canada, about how advertisers target underage users on social platforms. "Young people often have difficulty recognizing advertising content online," he acknowledged, "especially when the content and the advertising are tied closely together as in the case of advergames and viral videos."
"What adults may see as digital literacy among young people is better described as digital fluency—they are very comfortable with the tools they use and pick up the basics of new platforms quickly, but that doesn't mean they are able to use them in complex or critical ways."
Restrictions apply in the UK for TV and radio ads aimed at children, while in the US the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act limits data collecting online. But this can't detect when a child has signed up (or been signed up) to social media with a fake age, as is so often the case. Young people have malleable tastes, open minds, and unpolished judgement: What makes them so adaptable to technology in general also leaves them more suggestible to ads for fast food banned from TV, or even (unintentionally) campaigns for beer.
Johnson recommends using ad blockers and surveillance software when a child is starting out, but also being open and honest about it. The end goal is to teach them proper judgement, rather than censoring them.
He pointed out, however, that social media also allows for complaints and even grassroots attempts at brand sabotage. "There have been quite a few cases in the last year or two where people have responded to ads they found objectionable via social media, which led to them being changed or withdrawn."
My cheese followers, mostly girls aged from ten to 13, never attempted online mutiny. It could be worse: Barely a week passes without at least one social media campaign going horribly, epically wrong. But sometimes they'd correct me when I got a meme wrong, or just imply, casually and crushingly, that I would never be cool. I felt doubly embarrassed for even trying. Advertisers love speaking about social media as a "conversation," but they rarely anticipate what happens when the customer answers back.