All right, that’s it – I’m calling time out. Brand marketing has finally gone too far. 

We’ve all witnessed the cringe-inducing results of brands trying too hard to seem hip and cool and appeal to a younger generation, like Pepsi’s painfully tone-deaf “social justice” ad, or every brand that tried to use a meme and failed

But late last week a piece of news came out of the marketing world that goes several steps beyond the pale. Multinational consumer goods giant Procter & Gamble has filed trademark applications for several internet abbreviations: “WTF”, “LOL”, “NBD” and “FML”.

A gif of Esmeralda from Hunchback of Notre Dame, with a caption reading 'WHY THO'

The response to this from the internet was unanimous: WTF, P&G?

I honestly don’t know what’s worse: the fact that P&G moved to trademark internet slang, or the idea that they seriously intend to use abbreviations like WTF and LOL in their marketing.

The Cincinnati Business Courier, reporting on the news, jokingly suggested that Procter & Gamble might use “WTF” to stand for “Why That’s Febreze”.

However P&G decides to use these acronyms if its trademark applications are approved, I’m predicting now that it will be terrible. This is because brands are labouring under two massive delusions when it comes to marketing to young people: one, that young people automatically like things that are “internet”, regardless of how they’re used; and two, that young people are at all interested in “connecting” with brands.

Allow me to explain why neither of these things is true.

Can P&G really trademark internet acronyms?

First, a brief note about what will happen if these trademarks do go through: it won’t mean that P&G suddenly has the right to collect royalties on internet slang. There’ll be nothing to stop me sending “WTF” to my editor as soon as I hear the news, or responding to something mildly amusing in a WhatsApp chat with “lol”.

AdWeek published a comprehensive analysis of the situation which points out that common terms like “S.O.S.” and “payday” have already been trademarked by brands to refer to their products (a line of soap pads and a Hershey’s snack bar, respectively). That doesn’t mean that people can’t still shout out “SOS!” if they’re in distress, or use the word “payday” in a sentence. It just prevents other brands from making another product of that kind with the same name.

In fact, digital publisher Buzzfeed already holds a trademark for “LOL”, but it only applies to their distinctive yellow and black sticker design. And a tax prep app named “What Tax Form” supposedly attempted to trademark “WTF”, but was ultimately unsuccessful.

Details of Buzzfeed's LOL trademark, which refers specifically to a 'mark drawing' of the letters LOL in a yellow circle.

P&G has a lot more clout and, undoubtedly, legal resources than a tax app, but that doesn’t mean that the applications will be approved. So far, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has sent responses to P&G over “WTF” and “LOL” that indicate an initial refusal or require additional information. P&G has until January to respond.

It’s possible that this could all come to nothing, but it won’t be the last time that a brand makes a horrible, poorly-executed attempt to use internet culture in its marketing, so let’s move on to our next point: why brands’ attempts to be “internet” are almost always terrible.

Why brand attempts to use internet culture in marketing fall flat

Now, young people by no means have a monopoly over internet culture, but I’m going to go out on a limb and say that by trademarking abbreviations like “FML” and “NBD”, Procter & Gamble is clearly hoping to appeal to a younger audience. (I hesitate to say “Millennials”, given that it’s often misused as a shorthand for “teenagers” when the oldest Millennials are currently in their mid 30s).

As I stated at the beginning of this article, there have been no shortage of attempts by brands to appeal to “the youth”, and so few of them ever hit their mark. Reddit has an entire subreddit, r/FellowKids, dedicated to immortalising and mocking misguided attempts at advertising to young people.

Surprise, surprise, there’s already a thread for P&G’s trademark bid. Not a great start.

But it doesn’t dissuade brands from trying. Because every one-in-a-million successful use of a meme, every Denny’s pancake tweet (and I’m not going to lie, it was an excellent tweet) spawns a dozen articles exulting the potential of memes to produce “fresh” and “relevant” marketing, to make brands appear “relatable” and “humorous” to an internet-savvy younger audience.

“At last!” they cry. “We’ve cracked it! We’ve connected with the elusive Millennial Generation! Soon, all of their non-existent income will be lining our pockets!” And they set about jumping on an overloaded, rickety and doomed bandwagon.

Zoom in on the syrup. You won’t regret it. Well, you might. 

Here’s the thing about memes: people love them because they’re funny. They don’t love them because they’re “from the internet”, and because we as young people are also “from the internet”. This line of reasoning is why brands like P&G almost invariably fall flat when they try to use things like internet slang to appeal to young people.

Brands using emoji is another great example of this. There have been a few, rare, shining examples of well-used emoji in marketing in amongst a sea of cringe-worthy clunkers. The ones that succeed do so because they’re unexpected, irreverent and funny, just like the best memes. That’s not internet culture at work; that’s just humour. And humour in marketing has always been effective.

But because young people and the things they like are seen as an impenetrable cypher, brands are convinced that there must be something more to these internet thingies that makes them resonate with people. And so they try, and fail, to replicate it.

Brands need to stop acting like people – especially young people

Here’s the other reason why brands’ attempts to seem “cool” – particularly on social media – so rarely resonate. People don’t want to have conversations with brands. A brand is a faceless corporate entity; it’s not a person.

So when a brand starts trying to talk and act like a person, it inevitably comes off as a bit creepy – and that disconnect intensifies when they start to use slang or sound like a young person. Even though the person running their social media account may well be young themselves (because many marketers are young people), when coming from a brand, it rings hollow.

Nelson Petz, a new member of Procter & Gamble’s Board of Directors, stated in a segment on CNBC that “the Millennials” want to buy from “brands that they have an emotional attachment to”. He was talking about the tendency of younger consumers to seek out ethical or eco-friendly products from smaller or local brands instead of buying from big, global brands, and there is some truth to that.

But emotional attachment? As a “Millennial”, I can’t say that I’ve ever felt emotionally attached to any brand I’ve ever bought from. Least of all my brand of soap.

Still, just like with memes and other ill-advised trends, marketers reinforce this idea amongst themselves that consumers want to relate to brands, want to “connect”, and all they have to do is keep trying with it until something lands.

Bob Hoffman of The Ad Contrarian summed up this tendency extremely well in an interview with Content Magazine, in which he bluntly dismissed the idea that consumers are interested in “having relationships” with brands.

“The biggest assumption that marketers are making is that consumers are “in love” with the brands, that consumers want to “have relationships” with brands, and want to read branded storytelling, and all that stuff,” said Hoffman.

Consumers don’t care that much about brands. Consumers have lives of their own to worry about.

Our brands are very important to us marketers, but not very important to most consumers. Most consumers don’t really care that much about your brand.

There was a study by Havas media in North America, and Europe. Consumers said that if 92% of brands disappeared, they wouldn’t care. So, how much love is there for brands?

Most of the stuff is not that important to us.

The bottom line for brands is this. The harder and more transparently you try to appeal to young people, the less interested young consumers will be. The way to win over young people is not by trying to be their best friend, or trademarking their internet slang.

It’s by making products that they actually want to buy – though some genuinely funny marketing never goes amiss either. Just don’t try to use memes.

Econsultancy runs social media training courses.