The Rise and Fall of the Sassy Brand on Social Media

Angelo Franco


For approximately four years now, big food brands have enjoyed an almost ubiquitous presence on social media. This is not the run-of-the-mill postings of seasonal promotions and retweets of pictures of syrupy pancakes; rather, food and food chain brands have begun to base their online presence on relatable content and pop culture riffs, using direct interaction with social media users to spread dank memes and savage clapbacks.


Wendy’s Twitter account is replete with sassy comebacks and one-liners; Burger King is everyone’s favorite angsty millennial account that tweets existential memes in fluent Stan Twitter jargon; and Arby’s could potentially be used as a database of popular fandoms, from Game of Thrones to Adventure Time, from how much the food chain references them in its tweets.


This is an interesting trend. The practice was praised at first, with both clickbait and legitimate news sites commending the corporations’ clever use of social media to build their brand and grow their audience. This was, after all, an innovative way to reach more potential consumers. If Twitter is having a meltdown over Pharrell’s infamous Grammy’s hat, why not join in on the fun and interact with social media users in a way that seems relatable to them the way Arby’s did? If the tweet goes viral and you sell a dozen more roast beef sandwiches, then the dig was well worth it.


But lately, there has been growing criticism of this form of social media use, with more people taking notice that this is not one heroic social media intern from Taco Bell roasting an unassuming troll, but a giant corporation with an entire social media team behind every cheeky comeback. It wasn’t long ago that Wendy’s was enthralling the twitterverse by showing us how to squirt the mustard on its square burgers; and now there’s an all-out war on which brand can out-sass the other, all of them seemingly competing for a piece of the pop culture pie to stay relevant in today’s meme culture.


Taco Bell has been consistently cocky on Twitter since as early as 2012, but one of the earliest examples of this use of social media (sharing relatable memes) to really blow up was not on Twitter at all. Created in early 2013, Denny’s Tumblr page quickly began posting surrealist memes. Likely in an attempt to mirror the way in which users generally use the platform, Denny’s Tumblr posts had deliberate misspelling of words, were full of self-deprecating humor, and made references to pop culture events. This strategy to use Tumblr pretty much exactly how it was meant to helped make Denny’s page this sort of ever-present presence on the site. Users were mostly amused at first, trying to figure out what this national food chain known for its breakfast-all-day menu was doing posting nihilistic memes. They were tickled by it in a “lol Denny’s are you OK” kind of way while the brand found its footing. Eventually, Denny’s MO on Tumblr became the recycling — or re-hashing, if you may — of popular memes reformatted to make it all about Denny’s. And in due time, Tumblr users simply accepted the fact that Denny’s was just one of them: sometimes relatable, oftentimes weird, but at least mostly always entertaining.  


Meanwhile, in the chirping platform, Burger King was busy tweeting ineffective but wholesome pictures of its frozen lemonades. That is until a pivotal 2015 tweet, in which the king of the burgers made a reference to the popular “What are those?!” meme, marking the food chain’s first truly viral tweet. Having had a taste of a meme’s potential to go viral, Burger King quickly learned to make use of pop culture riffs and to post more relatable content.


Wendy’s, on its part, was slowly but surely becoming arguably the most favored in the hierarchy of Brand Twitter. Basing its social media presence on its witty comebacks and quips, Wendy’s Twitter account became so popular that its follower count went from a respectable 161K in 2013, to a downright outstanding 2.5 million, all thanks to that firecracker sass the redhead burger-maker has become known for. Wendy’s Twitter account is so prominent that the team behind the zingers and clapbacks did an AMA on Reddit, amassing over 42,000 upvotes and with some Reddit users straight up gifting Wendy’s with Reddit Gold. Reddit Gold (now called Reddit Premium) was a deluxe membership of sorts that users of the site could use to access special features, almost like a form of Reddit currency and, as such, it cost real money. So well-liked and well-received was Wendy’s social media team’s AMA that users were giving literal money to this multimillion-dollar corporation in return for practically nothing except maybe a few chuckles. 


This Wendy’s AMA was pretty illuminating, as it gave us a quick glance into the inner workings of a corporation’s social media department, and it showcased that cognitive dissonance that plagues consumers who now see these corporations as individuals with fully formed identities. This is what many are now making a fuss about, how brands behaving like normal people has made it difficult for consumers to separate the corporation from its social media persona. In other words, the line has become so blurred that consumers may no longer be able to recognize that every sassy clapback and pop culture reference is, at the end of the day, an ad.



Part of this may certainly be a result of the way in which we consume advertising now. It used to be that ads were pretty formulaic, where marketers showed us a product, told us why we needed it, and then told us to buy it. Before the advent of social media, clear breaks during your favorite television show marked the point where an ad was about to air, so that you can choose to remain seated and consume the ad, or get up to check on the wings cooking in the oven while the ad played unwatched in the background. These methods have not disappeared, but the jackpot now seems to be not on static advertisement but on branding. More so than simply selling you a new pair of sneakers that can make you run faster and jump higher, for example, shoe brands now want to build a certain brand identity and project a strategic aesthetic that consumers are more likely to remember and connect back to their products. And so Nike makes shoes for brave revolutionaries who kneel during the national anthem, and Vans look good on any skateboard and the more worn-out they are, the more street cred you get.


Branding is also behind the much-hyped Super Bowl commercials. These ads were not made to flat-out sell a product (although that is always the endgame), but rather to be memorable, easily shared, and with a high potential to go viral. So that as many Facebook users as possible see them and at least remember that hysterical little tidbit where a slightly off-kilter Steve Carell declared that Pepsi is the best thing we’ve ever tasted and was definitely more than just OK, okurrr?

But these are calculated advertising campaigns. Late last year, Burger King caused a mild commotion by tweeting gibberish for hours. Seemingly a glitch, the tweets generated direct responses from many users, bemused at the gobbledygook the burger giant was putting out into the twitterverse. Little Debbie’s tongue-in-cheek zing was present, and Hooters tweeted “heard that” in binary code, apparently finding the nonsense totally relatable. It turns out that the mumbo jumbo barrage was a prologue to the announcement that Cini Minis were back on Burger King’s menu. The intern didn’t go rogue and the cat did not run over the keyboard, Burger King explained in a later tweet; it was just hard to type with icing on their hands from all the delicious Cini Minis they were popping in all day long.


During its AMA, the Wendy’s social media team brought its usual charm and flippant humor. Where do they get their excellent roasting skills? a user asked. Inherited from smart-mouthed families, Wendy’s answered. Wanna get a job writing media for Wendy’s? Gotta chug a sarsaparilla in 5 seconds without getting sick. It’s all fun and games, really! But it turns out, as they explained, that just tweeting for Wendy’s is not a 40-hours-per-week gig - it takes more manpower hours than that. There is an entire team behind a couple of main people in charge of the tweeting itself—a full-fledged squad tasked with helping them run their social accounts. And for some tweets, Wendy’s scalawag social media team requires actual corporate approval. Tweets directed at McDonald’s, a frequent target of Wendy’s rascally sass, always require prior approval before the social media team can post them.   


This is what Brand Twitter is doing at the core. Building brand visibility so that consumers associate a specific persona with a burger or a double-shell taco. So it’s not just Wendy’s Twitter account that’s sassy and cool and irreverent, the whole company is quirky and super-relatable because look at how they dealt with that online troll using a perfect reaction meme; it was so savage. Because of this, consumers begin to correlate a brand’s social media presence with their products, rather than taking it at face value and realizing that there is a giant corporation and a full process behind every tweet and Tumblr meme. That’s the point. All these retweets and likes are not necessarily trying to sell you a burger; rather, the next time you’re on your lunch break pondering what to eat, you will remember that Buzzfeed list of Taco Bell’s funniest tweets, chortle in amusement, and head on over to treat yourself to a Nacho Cheese Doritos Locos Taco Supreme. And the tactic is incredibly effective, especially because it’s difficult to realize it’s even happening.


This is a well-observed phenomenon. In essence, the more immune you think you are to subconscious influence and manipulation, the more susceptible to it you actually become. This is something communication scholars call the “third-person effect,” and it describes scenarios in which a person thinks they are immune to subconscious propaganda, while at the same time believing that other people are not smart enough to recognize it.


It has been surveilled and detected in a myriad of scenarios – from people believing they are well-adapted to recognize fake news while other, less savvy people easily fall prey to misleading headlines; to individuals thinking that the lyrics in hip-hop songs don’t affect them personally at all, but they are definitely an influence on the easily corrupted youth in the urban centers of New York and Los Angeles. We need only look at the irreverent mess plagued with misinformation that was the 2016 presidential election to witness this in action.


It’s a notion of “Well, I’m no fool! I would know if a sassy redhead was trying to sell me burgers. Some less capable idiots must be falling for it.” But because we make the decision that we are not being influenced, especially at the subconscious level, we let our guard down. It’s the equivalent of staying seated on the couch when a commercial comes on the television, deciding that I know I don’t actually need a new razor, but gosh darn it, that Gillette commercial is so touching and it gets me pumped up every time I see men being decent humans, so I’m gonna stay put and watch this one harmless ad.



Users are now beginning to call these brands out, realizing how exploitative these methods can be. In an attempt to foil Denny’s practice of commercializing memes, Tumblr users created their own version of popular memes by superimposing on them the phrase: “John C. Miller, CEO and President of the Denny’s Corporation, is a capitalist running dog and his wealth must be seized and redistributed to the people.” Basically, when these repurposed memes went viral on the site, Tumblr users wanted to see Denny’s try to use the inflammatory meme for its marketing. It was a lose-lose situation, where Denny’s would have to either ignore the meme and tacitly agree that it does in fact recycle meme content with the purpose of commercialization while it gets roasted on a site where it used to be loved, or take the bait and re-blog a meme distributing anti-capitalist propaganda. Denny’s eventually responded to the meme, leaving Tumblr users feeling duped with its cheeky response, while still being able to capitalize on the seditious meme (the response has over 12,000 notes on Tumblr).


This critical response seems to ring especially true when brands sometimes go a little too far, taking real current issues that legitimately affect millions of people and use them for advertisement purposes.


Take Steak-umm, which went on a seething rant channeling every ounce of millennial angst to defend the scapegoat generation. It was a pretty astonishing tirade, touching on many sore points that would make excellent sources of inspiration for any millennial manifesto worth its salt. Which, thank you? But also, why? I imagine I would have been happy if Steak-umm had just DM me a coupon to get $1 off my next frozen steak dinner. But I suppose I, like all the disillusioned youth of Generation Y, also “look for love, guidance, and attention on social media” as Steak-umm asserts because being young sucks. So if a fellow lonely millennial wrote this Twitter rant, I guess I see you and I support you. Though it is more likely that the Pennsylvania-based corporation was just trying to sell me some millennial swag when its social media team wrote that thread.


Sunny D, meanwhile, went on apparent suicide watch when it tweeted “I can’t do this anymore” without any other sort of context. And hey, it may very well be that whoever was in charge of Sunny D’s Twitter account was just out of her wits because of how long and insufferably boring that night’s Super Bowl game was; but it must be said that a big corporation using a phrase commonly associated with depression and possible suicide (presumably with the intent of selling more orange juice?) is just not acceptable. So, as expected, because without context, the juice-maker’s tweet sounded borderline suicidal, other brands like Moon Pie and Pop Tarts rallied around the orange-flavored drink to give solace and words of comfort. Little Debbie, in a since deleted tweet, gave out some free tips to address clinical depression. The following day, Sunny D offered no explanation, stating simply that it had been in a mood when it sent out that tweet. Was the brand in a mood? Do brands get moody? What needs to happen for a multimillion-dollar corporation like Harvest Hill (which owns Sunny D) to sigh in defeat, throw its arms up, and declare that it can’t do this anymore as it bangs its head on the desk? Do corporations have heads to bang on desks?



Many mediums were quick to point out, rightly so, that there seemed to be an ethical boundary that was being crossed. Sunny D’s tweet was perhaps supposed to be a harmless off-the-cuff comment on the inertia of the Super Bowl game, but to many Twitter users it looked clearly like a cry for help. And going on a Twitter rant about the mental health of young people probably seemed like the best way for Steak-umm to get my attention. Brands are literally selling us depression to capitalize on the existential dread—and surely real mental health issues—that have defined this generation and, perhaps even to a greater extent, Generation Z. 


This is some next-level advertising, even if we think we are not susceptible to it. It’s not the clearcut marketing we consume when a commercial comes on the TV, but rather a subtle way to ingrain a brand’s image in our minds. Ads are starting to look less and less like ads and more like fun content that we share with our friends, whether in the form of a meme or a sassy tweet. This exemplifies how unescapable advertising is now and how we may not recognize it for what it is, so we consume and share it without regard. This has allowed massive corporations to be envisioned as fun, friendly individuals. And as this form of advertising becomes more pervasive, it makes it harder to call corporations out and examine their practices when things go awry. Because no one wants to throw a wet blanket on a fun and sassy redhead even for questionable business operations. And so perhaps the best thing we can do is try to be conscious of where our decision is coming from when we opt for an S’Awesome Bacon Cheeseburger rather than a Double Whopper for our cheat-day treat. 


Author Bio:


Angelo Franco is Highbrow Magazine’s chief features writer.


For Highbrow Magazine

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