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Food Brands Went Fully Off the Rails in 2019 — and Profited From It

From Popeyes sandwich mania to brand Twitter accounts run amok, the dream of slow food seems farther away than ever before

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It was the piss jar seen ’round the internet.

On May 15, Tony Posnanski, an amateur MMA fighter and a self-professed hater of coconut water, responded to the coconut water brand Vita Coco’s offer to send him a sample of its wares with a tweet: “Save that nasty shit for someone else. I would rather drink your social media persons [sic] piss than coconut water.”

Evidently, the company took that hostile declaration as a dare; less than two hours later, the brand replied to Posnanski’s tweet with a chilling photo of a Vita Coco employee posing in a bathroom stall, holding a Vita Coco-emblazoned jar full of what sure looked like real piss. (According to Vita Coco’s brand director Allison Finazzo, to whom Eater reached out via DM at the time: Yes, that was actual pee, courtesy of Vita Coco’s social media person Lane, the woman in the photo.)

The tweet marked a new low in what has become known in recent years as Brand Twitter: the shenanigans that corporate brands attempt to pull off on social media in an effort to attract viral attention, brand engagement, and the $$$ that can (maybe?) follow.

Brand Twitter has evolved into what it is now over the course of the last decade, as Nathan Allebach — the social media manager for Brand Twitter staple Steak-umm — wrote in an exhaustive history for Vulture, but since the beginning of 2019, it seems the brands have fully lost it. Trail-blazed in large part by big food companies like Denny’s and Wendy’s, brands are bucking any sense of propriety or shame in their desire for memes, clapbacks, and humanized personas that have increasingly speed right past amusing to fully, off-the-walls “what the fuck.” As Greg Morabito wrote for Eater earlier this year: “Food brands have become so desperate in 2019 that logging onto Twitter feels like walking into a party full of simpering idiots covered in brand gear incessantly trying to one-up each other with asinine jokes and flexes.”

Brands are behaving like people — tweeting in the first person; engaging in calculated public feuds; airing human feelings of depression and existential despair (in one of the most surreal online moments in recent memory, Pop-Tarts and Little Debbie rushed to comfort their friend Sunny D’s apparent feelings of melancholy in February) — to cultivate fandom and stand out in a marketing landscape where this kind of appeal to humor and authenticity has become the new norm. As Adam Alter, a marketing professor at New York University, told Vice, “this humanization of brands … means we’ve come to expect small doses of humanity from even large brands that may have once seemed faceless and corporate before the rise of social media.”

But brands, of course, are not people, even if the individuals behind their social media accounts are. This year saw a swell of backlash in direct response to brands’ ever-wilder stunts, particularly when it came to glib or tone-deaf riffs off of real, salient issues, like when Burger King centered a national campaign around mental health while failing to address its own employees’ stress and fatigue, or when Sunny D tweeted its alarming cry for help in a climate where depression is still stigmatized and suicide rates continue to rise. There’s something unspeakably cynical about positioning a corporate brand as a sentient human being dealing with the same problems you are, when corporate interests are responsible for so much harm done to actual human beings: Wendy’s refusal to sign onto a worker-led program requiring tomatoes to be purchased from growers with strict labor standards, Denny’s historic discrimination against black customers, Coca-Cola’s colossal contribution to the plastic waste filling our oceans.

Yet despite the backlash, brands ultimately emerged victorious in 2019, leveraging social media antics into real business (turns out fandom-as-strategy can go hand in hand with sales growth, as Steak-umm’s Allebach told Mel Magazine last year). This summer, Wendy’s brought back its popular spicy chicken nuggets, thanks to a tweet from Chance the Rapper that the fast-food chain blew up into an opportunity for incentivized Twitter engagement (to the tune of 2 million likes). But that was just a precursor to the fast-food chicken mania that followed in August, with the release of Popeyes’ fried chicken sandwich. Propelled by organic social media chatter — especially among Black Twitter, which generated 2 million tweets and 3.3 billion impressions, according to Twitter’s global director of culture and community God-is Rivera — and a Popeyes vs. Chick-fil-A spat that fueled even more memes and commentary, the sandwich became a juggernaut of a cultural phenomenon, one that reportedly gave Popeyes one of its best sales quarters in nearly two decades.

This reality lies in stark contrast to the future of dining that the Slow Food movement and “foodie” culture has promised over the past couple of decades: one of buying clean and local, eating seasonally, artisanal butchering and curing and fermenting. We now know more than ever the importance of eating sustainably, and the ethical and environmental costs of falling back on factory-farmed meat and mass-produced food only made possible through the exploitation of labor, animals, and the planet’s ravaged natural resources.

Despite this awareness and all the ways in which “foodie” culture and Slow Food have penetrated popular culture — see, for example, this classic Portlandia sketch — whatever dent they have made pales in comparison to (or, if we wanted to be cynical, has been completely drowned out by) the behemoth success of giant agriculture corporations and fast-food brands. And no wonder: fast food is accessible and affordable to wider swathes of the population than sustainable, consciously crafted meals are. A perfectly engineered fried chicken sandwich that costs less than $5 will naturally reach and appeal to more palates than the local produce espoused by the likes of Alice Waters. And, crucially, brands — with their vast resources, millions of dollars in marketing budgets, and lobbying networks of persuasion and power that shape our country’s policies — are set up to succeed in a world in which corporations are considered people, able to claim a right to religion and to political spending. (In a more absurd example of the bizarre creep of “brands are people, too,” a writer was banned from Twitter this summer after threatening to kill the Mr. Peanut mascot.)

The continued consumption of these brands’ products requires a certain measure of cognitive dissonance or maybe just lackadaisical acceptance, as do most seemingly simple decisions in an increasingly complicated and compromised modern world. Most of us are complicit in capitalist malfeasance in one way or another, whether it’s by eating a fast-food chicken sandwich while knowing of the chain’s shitty labor practices, or allowing some dumb brand stunt to obfuscate a corporate figurehead’s murky past. And in a truly despairing twist, brands — and the social media managers behind their online profiles — are openly engaging in this tension and the role that they play in it. In a since-deleted tweet in response to a critic advocating for animal rights, Steak-umm wrote:

we all have a degree of cognitive dissonance. your smart phone and clothes were likely made with slave labor. unjust features of our economy function as universal commodity. you being self righteous about 1 perceived moral high ground you have doesn’t fix systemic problems.

In blunter terms, this tweet might as well have read: “Nice try caring, dummy; together we’re gonna fuck up the world regardless, so enjoy some Steak-umm while the world burns.” Here, even a brand is positing that there is no ethical consumption under capitalism — not as a way to deter consumers, but to sedate them. It’s a sign of how far we’ve gotten from the dream of Slow Food, and it makes you wonder if it ever actually had a chance. Ultimately, in the year 2019, the brands won.