The Cult of Self-Awareness

We Are Becoming More Self-Aware.

Q: Why did the chicken cross the road?

A: It was most likely to eat some seeds or lay an egg. Chickens are pretty boring animals and don’t tend to do much else.

chicken

Reflexivity in media isn’t something new. Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, an experimental, fictional biography was published in 1759. Self-aware films have been around since the earlier days of narrative cinema, with 8 1/2 (1963) and Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975) being some of the most iconic films about filmmaking. Anti-jokes have probably been around since the “first canonical joke” was established, whenever that may be — maybe “why did the chicken cross the road?”

Yet somehow, only in recent years, have we just collectively decided that it is actually cool to be self-aware. We praised Deadpool (2016) for being “a breath of fresh air” in the superhero genre, and a film that ”didn’t try to be more than what it is.” And then came Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2020), in response to which, Wisecrack released a video essay that argued the film is, metaphorically, “a fascinating meditation on Tarantino’s career - past, present, and future.” It sparked a whole debate about the validity of this reading and whether or not it was “a film about filmmaking,” which you’ll likely recall if you follow the Tarantino internet discourse closely.

Perhaps true, perhaps not, for the sake of this argument, I’ll write this Tarantino case off as yet another “easter egg” that film enthusiasts are passionate about searching for. That, among many other traces of non-textual or inter-textual clues (relating to the artist or other bodies of work) that should only be understood by true fans. I think the phenomenon of watching films with increasing awareness of our participation in film culture is becoming more and more prominent. It’s not just about how we interpret films, but how we literally watch films, too. How many of you now stay behind non-Marvel films waiting for a post-credit scene? I bet you there isn’t one.

I really don’t think this is a fleeting trend, or a momentary appreciation for a superficial characteristic of media. It’s clear that consumers don’t appreciate films that adopt just the form of self-awareness without the substance (it’s too cliché). I think this is because we are actually becoming more self-aware as a species, and in general, we are more conscious of the artifice today than ever before. It’s a cultural shift. Maybe it’s a clear sign that we are moving away from the modern and entering the postmodern as we become more and more skeptical of artificial constructs. And while that certainly impacts art, you bet it’ll eventually influence every aspect of society (and consumerism, for those of you reading this newsletter), which is at its core, artificial.


Oatly and Subversive Advertising

oatly

The first consumer brand that comes to mind with subversive advertising (Coinbase’s Superbowl 2022 ad aside) is Oatly — a brand that, at its core, satirizes conventions in its industry to show consumers that “we’re not like the other milk brands.” They use self-awareness to reach new levels of authenticity and transparency in their messaging. And, might I add, they do it in a way that adds value to the brand rather than executing it as a marketing stunt. 

My most memorable encounter with Oatly is perhaps their “Wow No Cow” ad, a 15-second jingle of Oatly CEO Toni Petersson singing “Wow, wow, no cow, no, no, no, wow, wow, no cow, no, no, no, wow, wo-” (and then he cuts off). I find it particularly disruptive and refreshing in the context of the traditional dairy industry, where advertisements have almost always similarly featured a catchy jingle, but have also always been about… idk, calcium, nutrition, or growing tall or something.

Anecdotally, I know that one of the greatest pushes for voluntary adoption of alternative dairy is transparency in the dairy industry. Documentaries like Food, Inc., Cowspiracy, among other films, have shown people a side of their food system that they’ve never seen before and convinced more and more people to at least consider a plant-forward diet.

oatly_2

Looking at their product packaging, you’d find amusingly that the box is aware that it’s product packaging — all the ingredients and nutritional label is aggregated onto what they call “the boring side,” albeit noting that it’s all “very important.” But then, the rest of the package is packed with dense text about the company. I find that to be rare today — there is a profound appreciation for minimalism among DTC brands, but if this isn’t the definition of maximalist design, I don’t know what is.

oatly_3

But it’s not just its packaging design, it’s really in Oatly’s DNA. This mural, for example, reads “We made this mural instead of an Instagram post,” and in small text, noting “hope a barista walks by and sees it.” It’s witty for sure; anyone’s first reaction is probably acknowledging that this is funny. But if you think about it, it’s incredibly subversive because doesn’t marketing lose its magic if the illusion is shattered? But why would I, on the contrary, find this even more intriguing if I were a barista or a cafe owner?

oatly_4

This one is a bus shelter poster that reads “OMG! A barista edition oat-milk hanging on a bus shelter trying to get your attention.” Again, an advertisement that is self-aware of where it’s placed and what it hopes to achieve. Why does it work so well? 

I would argue that while reflexivity is popularized as a cheap comedic device, in reality, it’s an incredibly formal device closely tied to ideas of modernism and postmodernism. An advertisement like this doesn’t just work because it’s good ad design, but rather because of good timing in relation to where our society is today. A beautiful advertisement should theoretically attract attention no matter when or where it’s displayed (assuming it caters to conventional beauty standards of its era). A subversive advertisement, on the other hand, must exist in the context of established conventions. 

In other words, Oatly’s brand messaging is successful because we live in an age where consumerism saturates every corner of our lives, including our daily commute to and from work. Yet, I would argue that we are never naive of advertising. When your favorite TV show is interrupted by a 5-minute advertisement break, you realize it. When a bus drives by with a shampoo plastered on its side, you realize it. Professor Stam, a leading media scholar whom I’ve had the pleasure of studying with, notes that “reflexiveness works break with art as enchantment and call attention to their own factitiousness as textual constructs.” And so, an advertisement that calls attention to its own artifice appears refreshingly genuine, as it shatters the illusion of marketing almost as if to side with the consumers in the game of consumerism.

Which, if you give it a little more thought, Oatly’s self-aware positioning in response to dairy makes a ton of sense because it’s almost the entire alt-dairy industry’s angle and value framework for replacing cow milk - creating something that is ultimately better for you (the consumers) and better for the planet and maybe make some money while doing so.


Social Media and Self-Awareness

If the name of the game today is “organic growth” and “social media marketing,” then the effect of self-awareness lurks in places you probably never expect. Participating in social media trends is self-aware. Self-depricating humor is self-aware. Talking about your business on a business account (or “building in public”) is self-aware. These are all proven strategies that have worked with some of my favorite TikTok-famous brands.

Those of you who have realized that TikTok is a place for authentic, personable content have observed a fascinating phenomenon. In a way, TikTok is perhaps a reaction to mainstream social media (Instagram and Youtube especially) where production quality is unrealistically high and images are so over-edited that it is no longer is an accurate depiction of reality. The videos that perform well on Youtube are shot on prosumer 4K DSLR cameras and have professional lighting. The videos that perform well on TikTok are shaky, handheld productions shot on someone’s iPod 3rd gen with ugly font overlays exactly because of this fatigue towards over-processed media.

So if we see TikTok as the anti-traditional-social-media (which, I know is ironic given it might be the most addicting platform), then aggregating creatives you have prepared for Instagram and Youtube and reposting it on TikTok really defeats the purpose most of the time (everything I say here has exceptions of course).

Nectar Seltzer (55.3K followers)

Their go-to-market strategy is TikTok. Their most impressionable videos (imo) are the ones about how they built their business (self-awareness!). Their very first video on their feed is “story time: how our hard seltzer company almost failed before ever launching.” The part 2 to this story broke 400K views as their first viral video that made it past 100K views. Similarly, other viral content include “landing our first store.” This type of radical transparency drew GenZ support, especially because they’re a hard seltzer brand that is value-driven and champions Asian flavors and heritage in a market dominated by White Claw.

August (255.4K followers)

Their organic growth strategy is TikTok. What I appreciate about August is the entire brand ethos is about bringing transparency to period care. There is a mindblowing amount of behind-the-scenes content told not in a narrative manner, but just as a window into all things August (as a business) and period care products. Some of their best performing content include an absorbancy test between pads from mass retailers on the market and August’s pads. Othertimes it’s just Nadya (founder) having fun. Another memorable one is a photoshoot behind-the-scenes video, which is extra special because if you go over to their Instagram (where their feed is manicured and well-maintained), this deconstructs that image and brings transparency into how their creatives are produced. That’s the ultimate use of TikTok as the anti-social-media and achieving full brand transparency.

Duolingo (4.6M followers)

Their brand awareness strategy is TikTok. Probably consumer tech’s darling on this social paltform. None of their content is explicitly about using the app, rather, Duolingo (and its obnoxiously giant mascot bird) closely tracks trending audios, dances, memes and references, etc. to create their own humorous content remotely related to foreign languages. They are self-aware because they don’t take themselves too seriously and echo user discourse about Duolingo. For example, one of their top videos with 16.9M views calls “C A P” (lies) on a hypothetical user saying “I’m going to do my spanish lesson today.” Furthermore, as most brands try to be discreet with TikTok marketing and place advertisements disguised as UGC or sell through ambassadors, the giant green bird that is unmistakably Duolingo is somehow very refreshing to see.


Confessions of a GenZ Shopaholic

In the spirit of being self-aware, instead of an over-complicated framework in this issue of my newsletter, I’ll leave you with four confessions from a thrifty, GenZ shopaholic:

The takeaway is, the digital advertising landscape is rapidly changing. To successfully market on social media, you’ll have to start thinking like an avid social media user (which many marketers today are not). I’m sure I’m not alone with these confessions :)

· self-awareness, cultof, reflexivity, advertising