It’s a term that has entered the global, English-speaking lexicon as the Zoomer generation began to gain prominence on the internet and on social media in particular. To be ‘cringe’ is not just to give off that second-hand feeling of embarrassment or discomfort. The definition is actually a bit nebulous. It could describe somebody who is an inauthentic try-hard just as much as it could be used to identify someone who’s being a little too emotionally open.
Cringe is in the eye of the beholder and can cover everything from innocuous dad jokes to racially insensitive or tone-deaf comments or ads.
As you might have guessed, Gen Z finds the science of marketing to be inherently, ontologically cringe.
Digital marketing cringe typically occurs when marketers who are out of the loop with Zoomer culture try to latch on to a viral sensation and mess it up royally. If you’ve seen the extremely popular “How Do You Do, Fellow Kids?” meme starring Steve Buscemi, that’s essentially a visual encapsulation of the cringe phenomenon.
By definition, even the most honest marketing is a little inauthentic. Part of our job is to gloss over the bumpy or problematic aspects of brands to make them attractive to consumers and the unavoidable truth is that every organization has areas that need smoothing. This is simply the way that marketing has always worked.
As digital marketers try desperately to solve the Rubix Cube that is the Gen Z customer base, many of them are putting in immense effort to de-cringe their companies or clients as much as possible.
There are an endless array of tips and tricks lists on how to avoid posting branded cringe: let Gen Z speak for themselves, don’t respond to memes that are several weeks out of date, and so on. On the whole, these lists are correct in that the kinds of things they point out will help lessen the chances of producing cringe content, but there is no checklist for what does and doesn’t qualify, so no list can guarantee total safety.
As Gen Z rapidly gains increased spending power, marketers turn to these lists as a crash course to help avoid posting cringe on their client’s accounts. But I’m here to ask the question: what if they didn’t have to?
Why Is Cringe Such a Bad Thing?
While you do want to present your brand as polished as possible, I want to make a case for cringe. To do so, I’m going to start with what marketers and analysts have gathered Gen Z cares about: authenticity.
Being cringe might be, well, cringeworthy, but it can also be the display of authenticity that many consumers even outside of the Gen Z audience are looking for. With all that’s going on in the world, I believe the age of 2010s-era cynicism is dead. More people want hope, kindness, positivity and unabashed realness. Marketers have been so desperate to eradicate cringe from their content that they’ve overlooked something crucial: many social media users find cringe somewhat endearing. Sure, watching a cringe TikTok might bring on unshakeable secondhand embarrassment, but at least the person who made it was creating something genuine.
There’s also something else to consider.
Every brand is clamoring for virality but so few are able to accomplish it — at least not without spending a lot of money behind the scenes. While branded content rarely goes viral, it’s not hard to look at TikTok and see what does.
When you see something embarrassing or cri–you know what, what do you do? You keep watching, even though it kind of hurts. It’s a human instinct, like rubbernecking a car accident on your way home from work.
Part of your job is indeed to make your clients look as shiny, appealing and presentable as possible. But that comes as a distant second to getting eyes and engagements on their social channels and, for better or worse, cringe content is very good at soliciting reactions. And not just likes! Especially on video platforms like TikTok, YouTube and Instagram Reels, cringe is highly correlated with virality, as it gives creators the opportunity to make the kind of easy reaction that racks up views.
Now, is intentional cringe the best strategy for your campaign? No, I would not say so. First, your content reflects who you are, so while it’s great to have fun and join in on trending content, you really want to avoid having cringe become an adjective associated with your brand. Second, it’s hard to intentionally manufacture viral content. Trying to could very well succeed in creating cringe…but not the kind you’re hoping for.
All in all, cringe is a gamble — but aren’t most strategies with potential for a high payoff? Playing it safe in regards to digital marketing in a time when there’s more competition than ever before is about as effective as shouting into the void.
If your brand awareness is low, some play but carefully calculated cringe could be just the thing to put you back at the forefront of consumers’ minds.