Recently, I was briefed to work on an idea that was supposed to bring a rather political topic to the attention of "young people". Preferably via TikTok.
My colleague who briefed us called TikTok a "not very political platform" and I did what TikTok user @rod
would probably think of as the unspeakable: I unmuted myself in a call and called him out on his bullshit. @rod has a total of almost 32 million likes on his TikToks about millennials and the struggles of working from home, by the way. So if you thought TikTok was a platform only for Gen Z teenagers and dancing, maybe reading this article might do you some good.
It irritates me to no end when people in advertising talk about TikTok like it is this exotic thing. To me, this makes absolutely zero sense because it is a free app that anyone can download and have a look at for themselves whenever they want. This could and should be the point where this article ends, because it really is that simple. Still, it feels like a majority of people just don't get to this point.
This leads to a mysticism around the app, dominated by assumptions and preconceived notions that are usually either exaggerated, heavily stereotyped, only partly or flat out not true at all.
The idea that the platform isn't political is a good example of this: Of course, Charli D'Amelio
isn't famous for her deep, political content. She got her more than 100 million followers mostly from dancing. Good for her. But while she might be the most subscribed person on the platform, she is absolutely not the blueprint for every creator on it.
A tale of many TikToks
TikTok's algorithm allows for very different versions of the platform to coexist, depending on your interests and interactions. We accept this fact for any other social media platform, we talk about the problem of being in "bubbles" and "echo chambers", but when it comes to TikTok, people see one dance video and decide that that's all there is to it. Let me be blunt here: I think that's ignorant. It reminds me of a point made in a video I saw
, explaining how as a society, we often devalue things that mostly young, teenage girls like. But in doing so, we ignore the potential these things have.
I don't understand how on one hand, we as advertisers are so interested in reaching "young people" and "Gen Z" and then go ahead and judge their interests as being dumb and one-dimensional when it would take one deeper look to see that they really aren't.
TikTok's multidimensional array of interests and subcategories is most famously identified by the difference between "straight TikTok" and "gay TikTok". Users reference these two "sides" of TikTok like they are completely different things – which they kind of are. "Straight TikTok" is classified as the place where the Charli D'Amelios of the platform flourish: dancing, looking pretty and adhering to most societal norms of what "pretty" and "normal" are. In our heteronormative culture, "normal" also means that they're straight – hence the name.
"Gay TikTok", however, not only differs from straight TikTok in the prevalent sexual orientation of its creators and users. The two also vary heavily in content. Gay TikTok, by its focus on LGBTQ+ topics, is a lot more political in and of itself. It is a place where these "young people" on this "not very political platform" create and consume content about discrimination, equality, policies and how all of this affects their daily life.
And gay TikTok is only one example.
Young people being political? What a concept!
While we as advertisers were struggling to get brands to say anything about the Black Lives Matter movement, profile pictures all across TikTok were changing to BLM fists rapidly. Of course, there were also a lot of well-meaning but ultimately bad attempts at showing solidarity with the movement (aka blackface galore), but do you want to know what happened? The comments of these videos were filled with young people explaining to their peers why their content was problematic and how they could do better.
Why is this huge? Because all these "young people" know the concept of reclaiming something, which is inherently political. They know the negative connotation of "bimbo" and have taken it upon themselves to recontextualize it in the name of empowerment. The basic idea of this is actually incredibly feminist: Every version of femininity, even the hyper-girly, ditsy one of a stereotypical "bimbo", is believed to be valid and worth of being celebrated. These "new" bimbos not only make it a point to address gay and nonbinary people in addition to their fellow girls, but their whole philosophy is about being inclusive and generally left-leaning politically.
These are just some examples of TikTok being a lot more than a "not very political" platform that I have witnessed on my own For You page. If you don't know what that is, please, for the love of god, just download the app. That was my point all along.
Don't judge my ideas if you have no idea
If we don't engage with a platform, we cannot assume to know the first thing about it. Especially as advertisers and especially with a platform as multi-faceted as TikTok, knowing the gist of what it is is not enough to work with it in a productive, meaningful way.
I find it arrogant in a way, to believe that it is enough to have read maybe one article about the app and feel like you are qualified to implement and give feedback on it in a professional context. It makes it hard for me as a young creative to feel like people are taking my ideas seriously – because it feels like they don't take the platform those ideas are for seriously in the first place. And this extends to how our ideas are received by the people they're for, ultimately. As mentioned earlier: If the "young people" we're trying to reach see something that was created under the assumption that it's dumb, why should they think it's great?
So please, if you still think TikTok is dumb, download the damn app and see for yourself. Alternatively, stop briefing me TikTok ideas. I'll be more than happy to watch the next "not very political" trend unfold on the platform in my free time.
P.S.: I have no beef with any colleague of mine who doesn't understand TikTok, by the way. I just write better when I'm a little fired up. But still, go download the app.