- Future Social
- It's time to end Unhinged social media.
It's time to end Unhinged social media.
We've taken the crazy too far.
I just wanna apologize in advance for some of the language you’re gonna read in this piece. They’re not my words—they’re actual things brands have said on social media. Brands with people paid to be social media experts, to make content that best represents their brands & hopefully converts to sales.
Like this gem.
I thought we’d see “unhinged” brand social media voices cool it after Pabst Blue Ribbon tweeted… sigh, I have to say it here, don’t I… about eating ass. The guy got fired (and gave a very honest interview about it). But if anything, it feels like crazy brand social has only gotten more popular.
I don’t love it. It’s made me increasingly uncomfortable. I get why some social pros & audiences gravitate towards it, but I just… I just hate it. Let’s talk about it.
What is “unhinged” social media?
“Unhinged” has become a catch-all term for describing many off-kilter brand social media voices. Hubspot says it’s when brands “embrace more chaotic conversational moments.” Digiday described it as “leaning into the language of the internet to appear relatable and human-like” and “using shock value to drum up engagement and go viral.”
Wendy’s was the forefather with their roasts & poignancy, though our industry hadn’t coined the “unhinged” label just yet. Duolingo’s the reigning royalty—there’s nothing that owl won’t do for its 7 million TikTok followers. American Eagle claimed to be the most unhinged brand on Threads—as in it was actually in their bio as a point of pride.
The unhinged persona’s only getting more popular. I see copycats popping up constantly now. Some keep it light with lowercase text and no punctuation. Others go full on rude with how they talk to others. It’s a growing weed I wish we could pull.
Does unhinged brand social work?
That’s not really a fair question, and it’s one I wish people would stop asking. No social voice or strategy is one size fits all—that’s especially true of unhinged. It can work! It can also flop hard!
Duolingo is loud and proud about how unhinged works for them. Global Social Media Manager Zaria Parvez shared the brand’s Q2 earnings reports with the comment “imma just leave this here for those who think unhinged social marketing has no business impact or longevity.” Their social received a full page in their shareholder’s letter as well (though with a notably more vanilla description of the strategy). Sure sounds like it’s working for them!
Then you’ve got RadioShack, who tweeted… the below. And because it was part of their pivot to crypto, we could publicly track whether the marketing worked—thankfully, it didn’t.
So let's talk about @RadioShack.
And why they're tweeting... this.
A 🧵 with the details:
- the state of the business
- who's running the account
- does this strategy work?
— Jack Appleby (@jappleby)
Jun 30, 2022
Why is unhinged social getting popular?
I’ve got a few theories.
I really do think too many social media professionals love social media more than the brands they work for. They’re more interested in culture and trends and participating in the internet than products and features and how their company improves the lives of their customers. It’s one reason I wish brands would take a trends detox & focus on storytelling over contextualizing to what’s hot on the internet. And listen, I get it—when you’re working social for a dish soap brand, it’s tough to watch fast food accounts go full Grimace.
Lack of budget + headcount is certainly contributing to the unhinged craze. If you’re a team-of-one social media manager asked to handle a million tasks, it’s a lot easier to write a text-only unhinged tweet than spend time creating a polished video asset. The unhinged style also lends itself to rocky-looking image design, allowing social media managers without much graphic experience to produce their own images.
Data’s also being interpreted in strange ways. Yeah, I’ve seen the studies about what Gen Z wants from brands, but I’m old enough to remember what those same studies said about Millennials when we were that age—it wasn’t any different. “Be human” isn’t new marketing advice—we’ve just somehow decided that means internet speak & snark.
Should your brand try unhinged social?
No. No, your brand shouldn’t go unhinged. I know several notable brands have seen major success with it. But you’re not those brands, your audience is different, and your team structure is different. And really, there are so, so many ways to make wonderfully effective social content without acting like a crazy person on the internet.
Where’s the line? What’s unhinged vs. silly fun?
Let’s look to the elephant owl in the room. Duolingo’s rightfully considered one of the all-time great social brands, and the data is there—7.2 million TikTok followers, 162 videos with at least 1 million impressions, and 702 million total impressions since they started the strategy.
I really love a lot of Duo’s content. Their silly stuff is so great. Take this Tok on fanfic—I burst out laughing and immediately sent to 5+ friends (no, I didn’t write fanfic… but maybe I’ve read some in my day…)
someones gotta do it #fyp #dualipa #dulapeep #duolingo #languagelearning
I just think there’s a line. Like the poop and sex jokes. Here’s a medley for ya.
It’s just… it’s just a lot. I don’t know, man. I get the heebie jeebies about this kind of content. I know this sorta stuff goes viral… but is it for the right reasons? Is this how we want to present ourselves?
Then there’s this this.
And there I am, praising a brand for making a cum joke. That’s not even that long ago, either—9 months? I’ve got salad dressing older than that in my fridge.
Why the change? Why don’t I like unhinged?
It’s a handful of things.
A lot of me just doesn’t love the idea of putting that sort of content out into the world anymore. As marketers, we’re in privileged positions—brands give us money to make the social media content the world sees. All your friends who complain about too many brands & too many ads on Instagram? We’re the ones making that content. We’re the ones deciding what the world sees. I used to only care about results—likes, engagements, purchases— but now I think we carry some ethical responsibility considering we set the example. Do we want to use corporate money to further normalize ugly internet behaviors?
Maybe I’ve just gotten older. That 18-34 year old demographic so many brands target? Yeah, I turn 35 in four months. I groaned writing that, I groaned picking up my pen off the ground. Granted, I was never much for poop jokes at any age, but that sense of humor’s only gotten more unattractive to me as my first grays sprout (okay, they’ve been coming in for awhile, leave me alone).
Making unhinged your strategy encourages brands to flirt with the line of appropriateness. Duolingo’s caught heat with international headlines when they made light of the Amber Heard / Jonny Depp trial. It was a mistake that their team gave a very heartfelt, sincere apology for, though the kind of mistake that only happens when you employ this strategy.
On what planet does a brand - even @duolingo - think it’s cool to crack jokes about an alleged victim of domestic violence? The Depp fandom bubble on TikTok is very real but no brand should get anywhere near it.
— Chris Harihar (@ChrisHarihar)
May 18, 2022
The big one for me though—I just think there are so many other ways to be creative and effective in marketing. When I watch young marketers tweet about unhinged social, it’s treated like a binary—like brands’ only options are snoozeworthy corporate jargon or batshit insane tweets. That’s not remotely true—so many amazing brands have used so many different styles to find success. You can just… not be unhinged.
But hey, what do I know? That Owl Poop TikTok? That wasn’t a one-off—it was a full activation where the brand gave away owl poop. I’m sure their reply to me would be something like this:
when you do your lesson, i lose a feather #duolingo #languagelearning #dulapeep
Personally, I don’t want beer brands telling me to eat ass, I don’t want poop jokes from a language learning app, and I don’t want more brands putting more unhinged social into the world.