Where Brands and Comedy Meet: The Weird World of “Native Marketing”

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A few weeks ago, the YouTube star Miranda Sings released a new music video on her channel. Entitled “Sexy Buttery Love Song,” it features her signature vocal style, bizarre dancing, and liberal use of double entendre. What sets it apart from her other work is that it’s a Jack in the Box ad.

Miranda is a character created by singer and actress Colleen Evans. Originally a straightforward parody of a self-absorbed teen trying to make a name for herself posting earnest, off-key renditions of Caro Mio Ben and Christina Aguilera’s “Beautiful,” she gradually morphed into something like a caricature, defined by her increasingly bizarre personal style and a set of vocal tics that grate the ear just so. It’s as difficult to describe her in writing as it is to put a finger on what her nearly six million YouTube subscribers find so endearing about her, but her fanbase — whose members call themselves Mirfandas — keeps growing. Jerry Seinfeld is an admirer, and she’s set to star in an upcoming Netflix series.

In short, Miranda is a YouTube heavyweight. When Jack in the Box started looking around for a new “influencer” — the marketing term of art for third parties paid to promote a brand to their audiences — she seemed like the perfect fit, not least because the Jack in the Box marketing team were Mirfandas. “She’s absolutely hilarious,” says Rah Mahtani, Jack in the Box’s social media manager. “Plenty of us in the office were fans already.” The company got in touch with Evans, who was apparently delighted at the opportunity.

Miranda is only the most recent internet star to produce a sponsored piece. “Sexy Buttery Love Song” has a number of spiritual predecessors; Tim and Eric’s 2008 Vodka Movie is an early example. More recently, the McElroy brothers, hosts of the weekly comedy podcast My Brother, My Brother, and Me (MBMBaM, to fans), were paid by Totino’s to produce a special extra episode entitled “The McElroy Family Fun Hour Brought to You by Totino’s.”

In the internet age, more than ever, advertising has to happen across many platforms, and it has to feel, as Mahtani puts it, “native to the platform.” That means that instead of merely hiring celebrities to read a script, companies are increasingly handing the creative reins over to performers like Miranda and the McElroys who have built their careers online.

What makes this brand of native marketing feel odd, to a casual observer, is the tension between promoting a product and laughing at it. It’s not that these “influencers” are somehow secretly making fun of the companies paying them; rather, online platforms have a kind of inside joke quality that can make a sponsored piece feel more like satire than an ad.

With Miranda, this tension stems from the strangeness of the character herself. “Sexy Buttery Love Song” centers around her taking a Jack in the Box burger on a date, which itself isn’t a premise that would seem unusual in a TV ad. But following a special kind of Miranda logic, this means taking a bubble bath with the cheeseburger and seductively pouring milk on it out of a long-stemmed glass. Miranda’s appeal is whatever the opposite of an acquired taste is: you either get her or you don’t. If the traditional purpose of a celebrity spokesperson is to lend credibility to a product, Miranda fails desperately at this job.

Meanwhile, the MBMBaM universe can often feel like a giant online hangout. The show is, on its face, an advice podcast, and since it relies for material on questions submitted by listeners, it’s very much a collaborative endeavor. The MBMBaM world is populated with innumerable inside jokes and a pantheon of regular listener-characters with nicknames like “Level 9000 YaDrew Answers Druid Drew Davenport” (riffing on listener-submitted Yahoo Answers questions forms a regular segment).

As far as the Family Fun Hour itself (which Splitsider recently highlighted), Justin McElroy, who I interviewed via email, summarizes it neatly when he says that the brothers treat ads just like the regular content of the show: “We give sponsors the same basic human decency and respect we’d extend to all our listeners who [send] in questions, but we’re also going to use their products as a platform for making jokes about horses and ghosts and crap like that.”

Despite their real enthusiasm for pizza rolls, there’s a feeling the hosts pulled a kind of slick con in getting paid to crack jokes about them, and that the audience is in on it.

That sense of inclusion, that fans of Miranda or MBMBaM are part of a special club, is exactly what advertisers are hoping to tap into. Online personalities develop “this kind of back-and-forth with their fanbases,” Mahtani says, “that really allows them to speak with [fans] in an authentic way.” The tone of the whole advertising interaction shifts from one of condescension, where a company explicitly tries to sell something to viewers, to something like an inside joke — a goofy friend winking and nudging at audiences about a product.

But make no mistake: an important element of the native marketing equation is finding performers who genuinely love the product they’re hawking. Miranda, who once explained she eats only meat because she believes it’s wrong to kill plants, apparently grew up eating Jack in the Box (or rather, Evans, her real-life counterpart, did). McElroy, for his part, noted that he and his brothers have “genuine affection for pizza rolls,” which had come up several times on the show long before the company ever paid them.

If these so-called influencer pieces are hot right now in the marketing world, it seems to be largely because marketers enjoy them. Jack in the Box, at least, doesn’t measure the success of pieces like Miranda’s based on any concrete measure of impact on sales. Rather, according to Mahtani, “to us, the primary goal is to entertain people at scale.” He says Jack in the Box has been pleased with how many views and shares the video has gotten, but just as much, the marketing team themselves thought it was funny.

I wasn’t able to interview anyone at Totino’s, but the Family Fun Hour came about because of a Twitter exchange that Totino’s started, seemingly apropos of nothing. Though McElroy describes the interaction as “the closest thing I’ve ever experienced to inception,” it’s fair to say it wouldn’t have happened without a Totino’s employee he calls “a friend on the inside” who got the ball rolling.

To some fans, this kind of sponsored work smacks of selling out. Online platforms, being free to use, have an element of democracy that’s missing from other media, and audiences think of their favorite YouTubers and podcasters as belonging to them in a way movie stars and professional athletes don’t.

On another level, influencer marketing can be seen as more insidious than standard advertising, because it makes viewers feel that they’re in on the joke, that they’re not really being sold anything. Of course, they absolutely are. Perhaps more than this, there’s something vaguely sinister about the idea of ads themselves serving as entertainment rather than an imposed distraction from it.

If you wanted to be a critical theory jerk about it (and I do, just for a moment), you could look at this as an internet-age example of what the philosopher Herbert Marcuse terms “repressive desublimation.” Basically, since modern capitalism turns art into a commodity, it can’t exist without perpetuating the status quo — even if a particular piece is, on its face, critical of capitalism.

In 1964, this meant Marx being sold as a mass-market paperback; in 2016, it’s illustrated almost too perfectly by a Totino’s-sponsored Tim and Eric character named Hard Rock Joe boldly declaring, “you can keep all that corporate BS. I’m into punk pizza rolls with Totino’s!” The line, of course, is self-consciously ridiculous, but it encapsulates the sentiment that the only choices available to 21st-Century Americans are between brands. Even in choosing free online entertainment, advertisers follow us.

By no means am I suggesting that these comedians would be busy advancing an anti-corporate agenda if they weren’t accepting dirty pizza money. Indeed, as I’ve mentioned, both the McElroys and Miranda are real fans of the companies paying them (though with Tim and Eric, who have said that they “despise advertising and marketing,” the advertising/satire tension is more palpable).

Since all of us are supporting one commercial interest or another whatever we do — we all need to buy stuff to live, let alone go on the internet — it’s silly to be upset with our favorite entertainers for accepting advertising money. Nor is this brand of marketing really a new phenomenon. McElroy looks at it as a throwback “to the way radio used to be made, with a sponsor footing the bill for a whole program and the hosts themselves doing the ad reads.”

And while wealthy patrons were, for centuries, the way to make a living as an artist, we’re not going back to the Renaissance yet: neither Miranda nor MBMBaM make most of their money from sponsors. MBMBaM, as part of the Maximum Fun podcast network, is mostly listener-funded, a fact that McElroy says “gives us the power to not be beholden to sponsors.”

Whatever you think of the relationships between advertisers and artists, these influencer pieces are just as much fun as anything else their creators make, and it’s hard for me to feel bad about these internet-made comedians getting paid, by anyone. For whatever it’s worth, though, the Family Fun Hour made me really want some pizza rolls.

Katelyn Best is a journalist, writer, and recreational linguist in Portland, Oregon. Her work has appeared in The Toast and Portland Monthly and she helps make a podcast about Wikipedia.

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