TikTok has taken the world by storm over the past several years. The app has become a hub for comedy, social activism, connection, and more. The sustained success of TikTok six years after its launch is something unique for a social media platform. So what makes TikTok different from other apps of its kind?
There seems to be a defined and unwavering life cycle for a social media platform. It is introduced, it becomes popular among young people, the platform grows and starts selling ad space to increase its profits, and soon the site is clogged to the brim with corporate content and product placement. So, the young creators leave to find the next trending platform, and the cycle starts over again. The debate over whether or not to sell ad space was a point of major contention for the creators of Facebook. In November 2007, Facebook made the decision to start selling ad space on the platform, subsequently deterring younger users.
However, there is something distinctly different about TikTok. Anyone scrolling through their FYP ("For You Page") will notice there are relatively few ads. They will occasionally see a sponsored post advertising a specific pair of leggings or a zodiac-themed necklace, but not too much else. TikTok is somewhat unique among the big social media platforms. Instead of just allowing advertisers to pay for more views, they have rolled out their “Promote” feature, which allows creators to do the same. This levels the playing field between creators and corporations. However, big-brand players on TikTok have decided to go a different route. Corporate accounts like Ryanair and Duolingo are changing the way brands interact with social media users by adapting to the culture of the app. Essentially, these brands don’t make ads for TikTok—they make TikToks that function as ads.
The language learning app, Duolingo, has become famous for their oversized green owl mascot costume that they use in their videos. It has been a running joke for years among internet users that the Duolingo owl will (jokingly) mock and shame users for forgetting their language lessons. The brand’s social media team took advantage of the threatening personality the Internet gave their lovable mascot and ran with it. Today, Duolingo has amassed an impressive following of 2.9 million thanks to their unusually provocative corporate content. Their most popular videos entail their mascot twerking on conference tables, chasing employees around the office, and threatening violence against users who don’t do their lessons on the app.
Another example is Ryanair. The Irish-based airline is known for their irreverent, skit-style videos on the app. They utilize popular audios and filters to make their videos blend in with others that will typically come across a user’s For You Page. They were the first brand to successfully pull off the seamless transition between creator and corporate content; I ended up following Ryanair after seeing several of their videos on my FYP, even though the airline doesn’t operate outside of Europe, and I likely won’t have a reason to fly with them any time soon. At present, they have a staggering 1.5 million followers. The success of their account has allowed users to enjoy uninterrupted scrolling. On Instagram and Twitter, it feels like every third post is an ad you have no interest in seeing, whereas TikTok ads are indistinguishable from regular videos.
This has its consequences, however. Corporate content, no matter how much it tries to blend in with the platform it is using, is still advertising. TikTok’s young audience can easily confuse content from Duolingo or Ryanair for regular content, without ever realizing that those accounts are trying to market a product to them—and that is not the only way brands are hiding their ads on TikTok. It has come out that popular TikTokers are being paid tens of thousands of dollars per post to promote certain music in their videos. Already, the app has fallen under fire in the European Union for failing to protect its youngest users from these kinds of hidden ads.
TikTok has proved that it is more than just a passing trend. During the pandemic, it gave us more Hank Green content than we even knew what to do with, and strangely enough, even Ratatouille the Musical. Since it seems TikTok is now a permanent fixture of the digital world, it is worth taking this app seriously and examining its complexity. Clearly, TikTok is far from perfect when it comes to corporate content. We are still seeing the same volume of branded posts on this app as any other, but the visibility of it is far lower, which makes it hard for susceptible young users to distinguish between what is genuine and what is an ad. However, what makes TikTok unique among the social media platforms is that rather than brand content controlling creators, creators control brand content. With this type of creator-centered in-app culture, it is tempting to believe that TikTok will see more longevity in its social relevance than its predecessors, Vine and Music.ly., but only time will tell what the future holds for TikTok and the brands that utilize it.