“But in the wake of the information age, there came a reaction to this irony — one which emphasized the emotional sincerity of what it means to be human in a world where we find ourselves alienated by the promises of globalism and technology.” (Liam Creaser)
As a result of exponentially advancing tech and the capabilities of the web, advertising today looks nothing like it did 30 or 40 years ago. But it’s not just smartphones and SEO that have shifted the way companies connect with their users — our culture and modes of communication, too, have changed.
The best marketers, then, aren’t just well-versed in the latest algorithm updates. They have their pulse on the current zeitgeist. They’re voracious consumers of culture in every form (art, politics, TV, social media, and more) and attuned to what cuts through the noise and makes people alert and attentive — what makes them laugh.
Humor has always been a powerful strategy in advertising, but we’re now seeing a clearer delineation in the ways each generation engages with it and leverages the tools of sarcasm, irony, and parody (or their antithesis, sincerity) to respond to the social climate.
In the early days of advertising, the “dignified sell” was the M.O. of American marketers, as captured in the 1916 ad pictured above. “There is nothing so winning in the world as absolute sincerity,” the memo reads. “Nothing is so abhorrent as its lack.” Throughout the 20th century, humor began to play a more significant role in marketing, largely influenced by developments in film, radio, and TV, which irrevocably changed mass communication. (TV, as a highly visual, stimulating medium, captured humor more easily than the written word.) Still, it wasn’t until the 1990s and post-9/11 that aggressive humor became the norm.
In a time of increasing anti-establishment sentiment and lack of trust in institutions, large corporations have learned that cultivating trust with younger consumers hinges on a delicate balance between being sincere and ironic, humorous, or otherwise self-aware. In his essay on irony and sincerity for Negation Mag, Liam Creaser writes:
“Corporations and political institutions need to present themselves as trustworthy during hard times — either through sentimental sincerity or self-aware irony — in order to maintain their legitimacy in a society whose contradictions have become increasingly apparent, where most of us are burnt out or concerned about a decent future.”
For Zoomers, who’ve inherited previous generations’ failings and face a world in which economic precarity is a given, climate-induced ecological disaster is imminent, and misinformation and “fake news” are as readily available as facts — not to mention strings of senseless mass shootings and the ongoing pandemic — humor is a critical way to cope with the absurdity and alienation of their current reality.
In September 2021, protesters gathered at the University of Cincinnati to share their support of a recent Texas law that effectively banned most abortions. They paraded around the campus, shouting and waving signs that bore graphic imagery. According to bystanders, they were “aggressive” and condemnatory.
That is — until a second crowd began to form alongside them, chanting: “Birds aren’t real. Birds aren’t real.” Eventually, these new voices drowned out those of the anti-abortion protestors, who gave up and dispersed shortly thereafter.
This second group was Birds Aren’t Real, a parody movement and conspiracy theory created by 23-year-old Peter McIndoe that went viral on social media. Amidst QAnon and popular far-right, pro-Trump conspiracy theories, Birds Aren’t Real is a balm that allows Gen Zers to process feelings of helplessness (members of the so-called Bird Brigade regularly show up at protests around the country to “deactivate” them as they did in Cincinnati). It’s also a mirror that holds the image of its own ludicrousness to call attention to that of every other conspiracy theory.
While sarcasm and irony are reactions to (cringe-worthy) sincerity, we now find ourselves in a “post-ironic” age, where sincerity and sarcasm are muddled. It’s characteristic of Gen Z to be simultaneously hopeful and cynical, toggling between these polarities that have come to define their outlook.
But is Gen Z’s particular brand of humor is paving the way for better accountability and change? Whereas companies could get away with paying lip service to liberal ideals as millennials were entering into their buying power, Gen Z is far more critical of corporate virtue signaling and willing to spend their money on brands that align their values with their actual practices. It’s not enough anymore for businesses to poke fun at themselves or the world without being able to stand their ground on issues of sustainability and fair labor, among others.
In fact, we might argue that it’s time for brands to be sincere in creating products that provide both economic and moral value — as well as infuse their ethos with just enough self-deprecating humor to let younger audiences know that, at the end of the day, they’re committed to growing even if they fumble along the way.