Last year, South Park took a deep and critical look at the digital business landscape and the results were shocking. Yes, some were shocking in the gross-out way typical of South Park typically, but this season, their 18th, they set their sights on a different kind of surprise: a searingly intelligent, philosophically-based inquiry into the digital landscape in which we all work. Between tackling startups, successful businesses, digital realities, and content curation, South Park writers have turned a page in the show’s capacity for satire, and, more importantly, they’ve articulated oft-overlooked elements of our digital branding culture and how our work impacts the reality and psychology of our audiences.

While I suggest you just watch it—it’s all free here—I think that it’s worth articulating the larger parts of the conversation Trey Parker (South Park’s co-creator and writer) initiates. What he’s created is a piece-by-piece critique of our daily work that, as a professional working in public-facing business solutions, is important to understand.

You may not agree with what’s being said; some of it really isn’t funny. But it is a look attuned with post-human and techno-centric philosophies (just read Baudrillard’s Simulation and Simulacra and Hayles’ How We Became Posthuman), a summing up of our work in 2014 from an outside perspective.

So here we go.

South Park’s Critique of Brand Strategy in 2014

Point 1: According to South Park, brands achieve stability in the public eye by impacting consumers in a deeply personal, psychological way.

In the episode “Freemium isn’t Free,” Trey Parker (the show’s co-creator and writer) offers a truly searing critique of freemium gaming, offering a physiological argument of why/how consumers become “addicted” to freemium tactics employed through gamified marketing (fully articulated here).

While the exploration gives way to soap-boxing in the end, it does succeed in highlighting (through hyperbole) the way in which our messaging impacts users. Though most of us aren’t working on freemium games, we have to remember that our messaging becomes a part of our consumers’ psychologies. Any brand messaging that stands out against all the channel noise that people experience every day stands out for a reason. Messaging only sticks, only becomes stable and builds toward hallucination, by becoming an integral part of a consumer’s thinking and affects them on a deeply personal level.

While Stan’s use of freemium gaming, for example, feeds into a dopamine-need-increase as a result of hereditary addiction predisposition, believing that businesses simply prey on people’s weaknesses is naïve, and it seems that Parker knows that as well. Instead of a ham-fisted, standalone critique of freemium gaming being indicative of “business as evil”, the show offers other ways that marketing influences perceptions by telling sympathetic, “close to home” narratives about their business.

For example, the season opener “Go Fund Yourself” explores the notion of building startups in a world where businesses are made and broken by public support. By bringing together startup culture and crowdsourcing industries like Kickstarter, the show makes evident that perception of a business (presumably controlled through a marketing department) is more important to a business’ profitability that what it actually does.

Here’s Cartman’s 4-part startup “plan”:

  1. Start up
  2. Cash in
  3. Sell Out
  4. Bro down

And yet, it succeeds (and we see this through “testimonials” from crowdsourcing donors) because the narrative they sold (that they were just normal guys who’d prefer not to do anything ever again) resonated with their audience. People wanted to help exactly because it’s a life they’d want for themselves. It is this, the underdog perception of startups and “human run businesses” that is the sale. These marketing messages that resonate with what people truly want, fear, believe, etc. affect the way they interact with brands. Successful messaging comes from playing into larger, human stories.

Point 2: According to South Park, digital brands aim toward becoming a user hallucination.

Beginning in the second episode “Gluten Free Ebola” (never thought I’d type that), South Park takes to task the current hysteria over gluten and juxtaposes it against the late-2014 Ebola scare. However, embedded in the episode is a quick moment of business-critical clarity: a bad night’s sleep (because all of his gluten-saturated snacks have been taken away), finding Eric Cartman visited by a hallucination of Aunt Jemima, offering him sage advice on how to help the government fix the food pyramid.

While this could easily be seen as a throwaway moment, a silly plot device to introduce the solution to the episode’s problem, the choice for Aunt Jemima in particular, following on the heels of the season’s first episode “Go Fund Yourself” and the only mention of a real brand in the episode, suggests there’s more to it than that.

In particular, it’s suggestive of the idea that brands, real enduring brands, become more than simple product associations or product-positive experiences; instead, they’re transformed in characters in our life, voices that guide us during confusing times. And this makes sense, especially when considered against the strongly (if naively) pro-business perspective we see the four boys trying on. Within the first four episodes, we see the boys attempting to launch a startup and Timmy creating an Uber-like competitor for the taxi services of South Park.

And, while all done in the name of humor, it indicates that, in some ways, we’ve done our work; that the idea of brands, the idea of business, have permeated every facet of our lives; they drive career paths (the boys creating a startup), they help solve problems (Timmy creating a business to fund his summer camp trip), and they even offer spiritual guidance. Said another way, brands become a kind of stability for the average person, a real-world indicator that things will be okay, that we’ll ultimately get what we want and deserve.

Point 3: According to South Park, transformative brand messaging (hallucination) has changed the very nature of reality, the way we interact with one another, with content, and with ourselves.

Beginning in “Grounded Vindaloop” and culminating in the finale “#HappyHolograms”, South Park… goes on a journey unlike one they’ve ever gone on before. Rather than traveling to far-off imaginative lands, they go deep into the technological present, taking on multi-channel branding overload, content curation, the nature of influencers, and, more largely, the way in which the digital brand paradigm hasn’t just changed the way we buy and sell but how our culture relates through technology to reality.

The series of episodes begins with the boys getting lost in a virtual reality loop while testing out an Oculus Rift, and ultimately being unable to determine who’s virtual “reality” the episode takes place in. What’s fascinating, though, from a business perspective is that the meditation never leaves the brand. Multiple times in the episode, in a quest for help escaping the grounded loop they’ve become trapped in, the boys call Oculus Rift customer service for help—not their parents, not friends, nor anyone else. They operate under the assumption that the brand physically controls the experience of the particular reality and that it has the capacity to intervene. And, in this case, because the product is a virtual reality tool, they’re right (but more on that below).

As they make contact with a CSR, the CSR himself becomes involved in the loop. The Oculus rift then, the product, creates an alternate reality that the company itself can’t control, can get lost in itself, to which the business’ only answer is “But have we provided you with responsive customer service?”.

While this is an incredible hyperbolizing of brand effect—of perception of, and interaction with, a product becoming so unmanageably complex that it lives beyond the confines of those who actually created/control the product—it’s not altogether inaccurate. If we are, in fact, creating brands that serve as deeply personal, almost spiritual guideposts for how we interact with reality, we—with our content and marketing materials—are, in effect, creating real narratives in real people’s lives. We work in a space where the stories we tell around our brands create consumers encounter, causing them to internalize thousands of conflicting brand messages whose narratives become a physical part of reality.

And this is something that we can’t control. We can offer product advice and fix bugs, but the emotions we tap into gaining access into the home and mind of our consumers, the stories we help them tell themselves, can’t be contained. These realities affect our consumers, color their lives, the lives of their friends and children and so on; our stories change others’ experiences of culture, after all.

This becomes most evident in the final two episodes—“#REHASH and #HappyHolograms—which shows Cartman’s YouTube commenter persona, Cartman-brah, trending so heavily that his brand physically leaves the internet and appears in every-day life as a talking head commenting on reality. We see, then, the effects of our messages, commented on by influencers, leave their intended contexts—the sale of a product or service—and physically transform the way people interact with one another, with their surroundings, and with their media and brand messaging. What’s left, then, is what’s always been left, noise and reality, except that now, because of aggressive multi-channel campaigns and technological-driven, cross-marketed experiences posing as pure entertainment (a holiday special, for example) or human-based stories, the “truth” of the world is now branded.

To sum up:

In 2014, South Park called considerable attention to the effects of our work as marketers and those who create and disseminate branded messaging. Whether or not we agree with Trey Parker’s evaluation of the value of our work or not, his penetrating analysis of how branding and technology interact with people to create reality are certainly worth reflection.

Parker suggests that brands impact people in a deeply personal way, creating guiding sources of truth that ultimately reshape the nature of the reality we live in and how we interact with it. It’s important to consider this idea, to take stock the idea that what we do has an impact outside the one we intend, and that our work is making its mark on the world.

What do you think of Parker’s ideas about brands and culture?


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