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How Food Brands Sold You Depression in 2018

Looking back on the year’s bleakest corporate social media stunt

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For major corporate food #brands, no advertising stunt is too shameful when there is money to be made. If releasing a cringeworthy hip-hop mixtape filled with songs about fast food results in one more cheeseburger being sold, it’s worth it. We know this to be true because that was not a hyperbolic example conjured out of thin air, but rather something square-burger purveyor Wendy’s actually did when it dropped We Beefin? on Spotify, Apple Music, and Google Play in March. Wendy’s, which has aggressively trolled its rivals on Twitter in recent years, has led the way as brands have focused their energies on being petty, sarcastic, dismissive, and downright hostile toward anyone who would dare to criticize them in any way, all in the name of retweets and all adding yet another layer to the modern online dystopia.

For years, the brands have packaged a seething pessimism that is felt by today’s young adults and sold it to us to drive business. They’ve played their part in ramping up the waves of depression and disillusionment that come as a result of prolonged exposure to bad vibes and bad news. And in 2018, one brand figured out it could package that depression and make money off of it, too.

Yes, in September, the verified Twitter account for Steak-umm, described in its Wikipedia entry as “an American brand of thin-sliced frozen steaks,” seemingly went rogue and broke the fourth wall, acknowledging that pretty much everything sucks. “Why are so many young people flocking to brands on social media for love, guidance, and attention?” this sad social-media manager asked, in period appropriate all-lowercase. “I’ll tell you why. They’re isolated from real communities, working service jobs they hate while barely making ends meat [sic], and are living w/ unchecked personal/mental health problems.” In the ensuing tweet storm, the voice of Steak-umm went on to express such woke sentiments as “... they often don’t have parents to talk to because they say stuff like ‘you don’t know how good you have it,’” and “... so they go to memes. They go to obscure or absurdist humor. They go to frozen meat companies on Twitter.”

Hell yes. I know all of those feels, bro. Load me up with some of those thin-sliced frozen steaks and let me eat my emotions. Steak me, please.

Nathan Allebach, who runs the @steak_umm account and was responsible for the above angst, confirmed on Twitter (of course) that he is indeed a sad millennial and those were his real feelings. Nevertheless, Steak-umm’s brand received a boost when the company’s Twitter account used misery as marketing. In October, Mel Magazine reported Steak-umm sales have increased with Allebach in charge of the company’s Twitter account, and The Atlantic staff writer Taylor Lorenz told the publication, “We’re in this dark time culturally, and it’s hard to relate to young people unless you go full-on depression mode.”

This whole Steak-umm episode only exacerbates the existential dread that blankets 20- and 30-something idealists. If Allebach had expressed himself on his personal account, his message would have been earnest and worthy of applause. Because he tweeted from @steak_umm, it’s impossible to look at this as anything other than what it is: advertising. And now, just as American society has reached the point where we have to rely on Domino’s to fix our potholes (which the pizza-delivery company will happily do until it is no longer a money-making endeavor), we have to rely on Steak-umm to be our therapist.

“The rant that went viral resonates because of the idea of loneliness,” Allebach told Mel. “And there’s obviously a mental health epidemic going on, and more people seem anxious, depressed or isolated. I can’t even tell you how many people, mostly kids, have DM’d me about how they don’t know what to go to college for, they don’t know what to do as a career.” If our relationship with brands continues to progress in this direction, it’s only a matter of time until, well, take it away, Steak-umm:

So far, depression tweeting has not become the industry standard for extremely online food brands — they mostly continue to deploy their old tricks. Wendy’s is still roasting competitors and potential customers alike. KFC and Taco Bell are still acting like hypebeasts. And DiGiorno is still dunking on Papa John’s. All the while, brands are still firing off their own relevant versions of every meme that breaks through to mainstream Twitter.

Steak-umm will stand out thanks to a unique angle that connects with customers for the time being (although the company does cover its bases by blending in with the more insult-prone brands and taking pot shots at media outlets and individuals). However, if channeling the dark inner thoughts that plague millennials continues to garner engagement and sales, it won’t be long until all the other brands join in the melancholy. Maybe 2019 will be the year @nihlist_arbys becomes @Arbys.