Social Brand Consultant
Bo Burnham's Brand Consultant Takeaway isn't That Brands Are Evil.
How a Social Brand Consultant Responds to Bo Burnham
Use it as an excuse for daddy to make some content.
But hell, I'm not alone. The internet of everything all of the time has not disappointed. The algorithm serves up a new video essay about Inside every week. The irony is unavoidable, and it is beautiful. Because, how does any other creator speak about Inside without examining their own self interest?
And brand storytellers are no exception.
But my takeaway isn't to shut up. Clearly. And don't get me wrong, there are plenty of evil brands. Its just, Bo Burnham's Brand Consultant addresses a deeper problem. And in order to understand, I need to explain the theme of Inside.
On the surface, Bo's "Inside" is a well-deserved critique of the attention economy. From the Jeff Bezos parodies to the epic story of the internet, it is clear that bug-eyed tech billionaires have too much control over our attention and mental health. But nestled within Bo's critique is also a warning against cynicism.
And Bo's character is the archetypal modern cynic. His guiding belief system presumes that everyone from the tech overlords to white women influencers, and even himself, is motivated purely by self-interest. It is the core tension of the special and is why Bo believes the future is so bleak that it already ended.
But cynicism – not criticism – is an example of social contagion. It is a subconscious behavior that comes from imitating the general assumptions others have about the world. And this is why, as a brand storyteller, I don't respond to the "Social Brand Consultant" sketch by quitting my profession, unplugging from the internet, and joining a monastery.
But before I share what Bo gets right about social brand consultants, I need to take a second detour and explain why your gut reaction is not always your own.
Have you ever tried to trace the origin of a thought? It is a painful exercise that leaves you questioning your sense of self. Every impulse, idea, and belief results from a complex dance between attention and synthesis of meaning. We are like computer nodes receiving and computing information, and "the self" is that ability to direct the input and output of that data. It is a liberating exercise because it reveals that our thoughts do not define us; our attention does.
Sociologists like Nicholas Christakis argue that humans have evolved to find shortcuts in our computing power by instinctually relying on the output of other humans. He believes that the exact mechanism is used for interpreting subjects and events across the board. It is a fast and reliable way to perceive your surroundings. And as a species, we adapted to this so that we could automatically adopt the necessary fight or flight response when members of our tribe were startled in the wild. Social contagion in this context is defined as the spread of behavior and beliefs we instinctively adopt.
Mapping the spread of cynicism is one example of this phenomenon. Since the early 2000s, sociologists have measured an increased assumption that people with a cynical outlook have higher intelligence. But, studies have shown that the opposite is often true. Instead, cynical people tend to have bad health outcomes, increased mortality risks, lower psychological well-being, diminished self-esteem, and reduced economic well-being.
Since social contagion is instinctual, we mimic belief patterns without even knowing it. The contrast between cynicism's adverse outcomes and its growing popularity shows that social networks have incredible power on unconscious behavior. And if you take a moment to examine the motivations behind your actions, you may find that you adopted the same cynical perspective along the way. It can be a jarring breakthrough experience because it may reveal that your gut reactions to past events were not your own.
Over the past year, we were all stuck inside with a constant stream of negative perspectives on the world. And our mental health showed it. Bo's slow descent into madness is a relatable illustration that shows the actual outcome of cynicism.
Right before his song "All Eyes On Me," Bo shared that he was not okay and broke down in uncontrollable sobbing. It was the most powerful and vulnerable moment in the entire special. And it is essential to understanding the message in "All Eyes On Me."
Bo goes from his most honest point in the performance to the most exaggerated characterization of himself by autotuning his voice a key lower. In this characterization, he invites the audience to appeal to what the cynic believes is everyone's true motivation – self-adulation and worship.
"Get your fuckin' hands up"
"All eyes on me, all eyes on me"
In this characterization of himself, he is committing to the modern cynic archetype. And this archetype cares more about being right than making positive change.
"You say the ocean's rising like I give a shit
You say the whole world's ending, honey, it already did
You're not gonna slow it, Heaven knows you tried
Got it? Good, now get inside"
Taking the black pill is a point of pride. He believes that it gives him the power to say he is right about the world's depravity. And the invitation to "get inside" is a play on words. On the one hand, he is calling everyone to stay isolated within their 4 walls. And on the other, he is inviting the viewer to get inside his mind. Whether he realizes it or not, he is appealing to that sociological adaptation hardwired into our brain. And at a spiritual level, the invitation is a call to worship him for his prophetic powers. Join him, and you will be powerful too.
The polar contrast between Bo's vulnerability and extreme characterization is a signal. If he is miserable, then adopting his perspective is terrible for your health. The real problem facing our culture isn't that the world is ending. It is that we believe we can't do anything to improve ourselves and the world around us.
Let's be honest; the impetus behind sharing my hot take is an attempt to monetize your attention. Each click and sustained visit tells search algorithms that I have something worthy to say. And as I offer views to these crawling internet gods, they provide the attention of people needing my services.
Millennia of human progress, and we are still offering sacrifices to invisible deities. But is wanting to grow your crops really evil? The cynic wants to point their finger and say, "ah-ha! I've caught your real selfish intention." But if you are forthright about what you are working toward, then that accusation has no power. The truth is, there is a way to satisfy curiosity and harvest attention for your business without killing the cat. And it's with a self-awareness that chooses to believe the best in humanity.
Bo Burnham's Brand Consultant got some things right. Bagel Bites isn't a person. And Wheat Thins can't be held accountable for lyme disease.
At the end of the social brand consultant sketch, the character says,
"The question isn't, "What are you selling?" Or… or "What service are you providing?" The question is, "What do you stand for?" Who are you, Bagel Bites?"
What's so funny and cringy about that joke is the personification of Bagel Bites. Bagel Bites can't stand for anything because it isn't a person. Yet, so many brand storytellers and consultants make this mistake. They make the brand the hero of the story, and as a result, their stories suck.
Personifying the brand also absolves real people from any responsibility. If a brand is committed to fighting inequality and an executive decides workers shouldn't get paid sick leave during a pandemic, then who is actually held accountable? Brands shouldn't be treated with the rights and privileges of people just because its Twitter handle uses the right hashtags.
Instead of casting the brand as the hero, the brand is just a call-to-action. We don't need to glorify it, but we also don't need to demonize it. Now don't get me wrong. This doesn't mean that some call-to-actions aren't evil. If a company works to destabilize poor countries for the sake of selling weapons, then that company shouldn't exist.
The takeaway is that we misunderstand the narrative. And as a result, it invites cynicism when it isn't needed and misleads the public when criticism is needed. If you have something valuable to offer, you don't need to hide behind an artificial narrative about your business. No one will trust you. And it isn't healthy for society to have an inherent distrust of every person selling bagel bites.
Instead of your carefully crafted brand, the hero is you, and it's me. If we actually want to break this cycle of endless hot takes about the end of the world, we need to own our intentions. We need to align our mental inputs and outputs with more faith in people.
I am a brand storyteller that believes that humans are not doomed to scroll their way into oblivion, but rather they are called to create and cultivate something beautiful. My call-to-action is to help others explain why their labor has value – without feeding our attention with empty clickbait. And I am afraid of failing, but it is worth it because the alternative is a slow descent into self-fulfilling destruction.