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How Brands Exploit the “Aesthetic of Relevancy”

Social media, design, and the meme machine that capitalizes on “wokeness”

Alan Hanson
Apr 26, 2019 · 9 min read
Illustration: GraphicaArtis/Getty Images

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Before I get into some vague yet persistent observations on what I’m identifying as the “aesthetic of relevancy,” allow me to define some perspective boundaries: These aren’t hard truths, but trends I’ve observed while working in advertising over the past six years, writing for and existing on the internet, and being a millennial consumer who is self-conscious of that fact while living in the world with similar peers.

In addition, I’m basing these observations on a particular class of consumer: a left-leaning, “creative,” middle-class consumer who is active on social media and considers themselves well-informed and socially conscious. They possess a great deal of buying power, either in actuality or via influence. They have disposable income, possibly for the first time in their adult lives, which they primarily spend on aspirational lifestyle building — and a majority of that spending is allotted for experiences rather than products. This is important because when they do allocate that spending for products, it is essential that the product says something about themselves: their personality, or a projected personality. For lack of a better term, this is the modern, young, urban professional.

I gleaned a lot of this behavior as the content and copy director for several brands’ social media campaigns, particularly Denny’s, back when “brand with a personality” and “brand with an opinion” were new and novel tricks most companies either couldn’t get away with or wouldn’t dare try. Of course, we got away with a lot more in the beginning. Naturally, the more the campaigns grew, the fewer chances the client was willing to take. I mention this because it is one small, insanely simple, and now quite common component of the aesthetic of relevancy, particularly in the social space.

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Don Draper. Photo courtesy of AMC

Traditionally, non-brand heritage-based advertising attempts to promise one or several of the following: quality, utility, longevity, rarity, and preferable price points. If you want to go the more philosophical route, you can perceive these promises within the wide net cast by fictional ad man Don Draper when he said, “Advertising is based on one thing: happiness.”

However, I’d argue that this particular consumer eschews the promises of advertising past, even happiness, for something of much greater cultural currency: understanding. Being “in on it.” Possessing a trending intelligence. They see themselves as the people who just… get it. Not getting it is spiritually disastrous. This is no more apparent than in the language of memes. People love when one thing is actually two things. A Black Flag shirt that says “Justin Bieber.” The umpteenth iteration of the Unknown Pleasures album art. A mug in the shape of a boob. This is “getting it” at its most base level: The person sees this object and goes, “Ah, yes, I am aware of this intersection.” Then they feel smart — because they understand. And this understanding comes from a proud accumulation of cultural signifiers-cum-identifiers.

When it comes to advertising, brands can demonstrate their relevance in a handful of “relevant” ways: by speaking in the language of pop culture and memes, presenting “good” politics, displaying a knowledge of current design trends, and attaching themselves to relevant personalities or entities. None of this is new, of course, but the cycles implicit in this understanding are so rapid that they accelerate the understanding, the display of understanding, and the evolution of the understanding at a dizzying clip. Philosopher Guy Debord’s spectacle theory, even truer today, is a wild blur:

With regards to social media, the easiest, quickest way to accrue an aesthetic of relevancy is to post an agreeable, progressive opinion. This garnered a lot more cred before seemingly every brand was doing it, but it was a simple idea: Tweet something the internet would otherwise say “no shit” to, were it not coming from a brand. In the early days of Denny’s, we got a lot of support for making what was basically a no-risk play. It was during Coachella, when a lot of mostly white idiots were still wearing Native American headdresses, and the discourse online was rightfully ripping these people. So we tweeted some joke about French toast on your face being a better look than cultural appropriation. Of course, most of modern, young, urban professional Twitter would agree with that. Anyone who doesn’t is going to be discounted — for their opinion and, likely, their egg avatar and 12 followers.

This was...five years ago.

While fewer consumers think a brand saying this kind of stuff is novel, making the play still produces relevancy for them. The consumer recognizes that although the brand isn’t really sitting around a boardroom deciding to take a stand against cultural appropriation or whatever else, they recognize that they at least have a smart enough marketing department to hire an employee or agency who gets it. They recognize that choice and trust and think, “Ah, yes, Wendy’s is good.”

Like I said, this is an especially simple strategy. Even seemingly major missteps get lost in the digital chaff, the online news cycle spinning at such a whiplash-inducing RPM that large scale fuckups are fast forgotten. I mean, U.S. Airways tweeted a photo of a model airplane inside a woman’s vagina. And that was when people still remembered shit. In the long run, very little damage was done.

Recently, national campaigns for gargantuan brands like Nike and Pepsi have magnified this particular facet of the aesthetic of relevancy. But the larger the play, the more noticeable the cracks. Colin Kaepernick worked so well for Nike, while Kylie Jenner failed so miserably for Pepsi. Regardless of the risk, many corporations are game to play. Yasmin Nair recently wrote for the Baffler about how quick we are to remove the large evil entity from its messaging: “Thanks to the cultural left’s abdication of sustained engagement with political economy, the saturation of wokeness has moved implacably rightward from the commercialized cultural center.”

As she states at the top of the article, “corporate wokeness is now big business.”

The other quick route to relevancy is meme fluency. We’ve gone through so many cycles that pulling it off now requires either a supreme mastery of meme culture, up-to-the-second involvement, hyperawareness of “when to play,” or a self-dunking humor and/or meta admission of marketing. (In my experience, most clients abhor this latter angle.) A tangential example is simple trend awareness — like, what’s hot right now? Hmm. Astrology! And by “hot right now” I mean that brands are catching on to something that has already been extremely popular on the internet for a few years.

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Photo: Alan Hanson

But hey, that’s the game. Being too early is definitely a thing, too. There’s a sweet spot for participation, right before a meme has been oversaturated, but when enough people (including “normies”) are aware of it.

Let’s look at a specific example, a conversation between two arms of the same brand:

Does this look right? Sure. Enough. It’s not going to blow any minds. It’s got a good anchor in National Sibling Day and a fluency in Twitter conversation — but the choices here are so safe and “memestream” that it’s not going to be very memorable. The memes in question are nearly old enough to be considered classic rather than late. Which is fine! It’s fine content to fill the day. Just… fine.

But what of non-messaging? There is indeed a look to relevancy. Naturally, it is ever-evolving, but whether it was Helvetica five years ago or Windsor today, the so-called “hip” consumer sees it and feels that it “looks right.” This is true of all design trends of the current moment. It looks like their taste, like it should play a part in their curated life. “The purchase driving can be something as simple as a subliminal, ‘Yes, that fits in my world,’” says Derek Heath, creative director at Gelcomm LLC. People with affluential aspirations feel in a visual language that has been cyclically taught to them — something they desire becomes the signifier of something that is good; when they see something similar they feel an affinity.

Again, this has existed for some time, but the speed and culture of sharing these signifiers is making these choices more important and more meaningless. They’re ephemeral because the cycle is so quick — but because the cycle is so quick that each trend becomes supersaturated super fast, a choice that sets one apart is rarified and possesses much more cultural currency. To be a pioneer of cool these days is to create an ouroboros identity: to discover a substance, or a style in which a substance is delivered and/or framed, is to change a tide — but not to share this on social media makes the discovery nearly pointless. And in sharing these discoveries, people spread the trend faster, helping it saturate to a point of it no longer signifying uniqueness. Eventually, they may be disgusted with this choice they’ve made. It becomes so indicative of a major trend that they must quickly buck it and search for something new, furthering the continuum.

The shortcut to these decisions is a simple question: “Does this look right?”

You know what these brands, often startups, look like: Glossier, Parachute, West Elm, Thinx, Soylent, Goop, Venmo, Ikea, Spindrift, Casper, Tuft & Needle, and so on.

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This looks right.

In the grand scheme of things, there isn’t much evidence to support that any of this directly drives sales more or less than other avenues, as far as I can tell. For many years we tried to convince clients that with social media — especially because it is so comparatively cheap — the goal should be affinity over sales; it’s more public relations than advertising. Maybe Budweiser does indeed trick an online audience into thinking they get it, that they’re authentically modern, and they raise their follower count substantially. Now the consumers are sitting in the seats. Now they’ve got a viewership to their feed so that when they release some new beer that makes consumers harder, better, faster, and happier, those viewers just might buy into the myth and purchase the product.

At any rate, this is the language so many brands now speak. And Debord’s 50-year-old truths are themselves more relevant than ever:

At least we get to design our alienation with brands who get it, right? Anyway, I need to go buy some National Parks merch that was promoted in my Instagram feed.

Written by

Writer | California Son | alan-hanson.com

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