Post originally appeared in June 2014 on the 360i blog.
Parody Twitter accounts, which pose as real brands and public figures only to blast out irreverent messages, seem to be part of a fairly new, fairly powerful trend. Suddenly, they’re becoming influential beacons of mis-branded absurdity — a scary opponent to those who care for the targeted brands.
But parody itself dates back to Ancient Greece. It’s always been an avenue for critical commentary and synthesis — both a reaction to existing cultural material, and a contribution to the public imagination. When brands are parodied, the results “not only borrow from the trademark itself, but they also appropriate the device of branding and employ it to make us think critically about the role of brands in our culture,” write Stacey L. Dogan & Mark A. Lemley in their 2013 paper, Parody as Brand.
PARODY IN SOCIAL MEDIA
In social, all brand communications become a two-way dialogue. Because of the nature of the platform, parody Twitter accounts are currently among the most visible, most influential, and at best, the craftiest responses contributing to that dialogue. The appropriation becomes compelling for two reasons: absurdity and truth.
- “It’s funny because it’s absurd”: The account wildly misinterprets the target brand essence to hysterical effect.
- “It’s funny because it’s (almost) true”: The parody is uncanny in its mirroring of official messaging.
Every successful parody account combines varying degrees of truth and absurdity.
@Vice_Is_Hip: The handle name is a shout out to the bleeding-edge on which the news magazine it mimics skates. Each post is an almost-plausible Vice headline, one shade too ridiculous. If you look closely, @Vice_Is_Hip occasionally re-tweets actual headlines from Vice. It often takes a minute to distinguish fact from fiction, which is kind of the point.
"Meet the NY teens dressing like Tokyo teens dressing like London teens dressing like goths"
@PinterestFake: A laundry list of thought starters and pinboard titles which gently poke fun at Pinterest tropes. The handle also pokes fun at the ways in which people ‘moodboard’ on the platform.
"'love this look for summer' [a topless woman wearing cutoff jean shorts]"
@NotTildaSwinton: Musings from a fictionalized version of Tilda Swinton. The account paints her as a wise, poetic demigod — exaggerating her public image as an art house actress and concept artist. @NotTildaSwinton’s sense of presence and voice is so strong, Harper’s Bazaar brought her in last summer to review the couture shows.
"I have named every one of my hairs, and tie strands together so they may converse. At night, the din of their chatter is almost unbearable."
@NYTOnIt: A jab at The New York Times’ practice of publishing trend stories which earnestly explore already-established trends.
"GUYS, kids today just don't like voice mails, and The Times is ON IT. nyti.mes/1uyQv7k"
@NotCoatFactory: Broken-English, coat-obsessed tweets rooted in a literal interpretation of Burlington Coat Factory’s name and Twitter ‘worst’ practices.
"SOLANGE: Don't you EVER talk about my #coat like that
JAY Z: Okay, we very sorry thanks"
WHAT CAN MARKETERS LEARN FROM PARODIES?
Marketers stand to learn a great deal from the accounts that parody them. Some lessons:
- Speak with a clear, consistent social tone of voice to break through. For those behind the above parodies, this understanding seems intuitive. The creation of an identifiable (but unpredictable) character is a large part of why the content is addictive and compelling.
- Understand that parody content is, in some ways, as legitimate as official brand content. While people are unlikely to confuse sources, it doesn’t matter who said it. It matters that it was said—and tied to the brand—in the first place.
- Embrace re-interpretation and remix culture—because it’s near-impossible to control. A brand that’s been re-appropriated has entered and engaged the zeitgeist.
As the roles of brands—and the ways in which they speak to people—continue to evolve, it’s safe to say that parodies will follow. As they do, we’d be well advised to look to them for a lesson on irreverence, and a reminder to take ourselves a bit less seriously.