This new batch of young people is supposed to be too cool and cynical to fall for cheap corporate tricks. This is the generation that avoids ads at all cost, knows not to fall for viral stunts from brands, and demands better treatment of workers. Yet Millennials and Gen-Z are fiercely loyal to certain companies that have a whole lot of ugliness going on behind the scenes. These brands are proof that you can get away with a whole lot as long as you maintain a certain cool factor ...
Could it be that a tobacco company doesn't have your best interests in mind? Maybe we should have seen this coming, but Juul, the Monster Energy of electronic cigarettes, owes more of its success to the (American) Spirit of cigarette lobbyists than you might think.
Even though they've branded themselves as a smoking substitute offering "independence from Big Tobacco," Juul initially made a name for themselves marketing vapes to "young people" who were not previously smokers. Juul's founders have claimed that their product is intended to reduce smoking, but they obviously have no intention of reducing the public's nicotine consumption -- that's how they make their money. It's like that scene where Indiana Jones swaps out the bag of sand for the gold statue, but in this case the sand is aerosol.
By the way, Juul is now partially owned by tobacco empire Altria, the gang behind the Marlboro Man and child-gateway-to-smoking Black & Mild. When it comes to making billions from chemical addiction, history can't help but repeat itself.
Do you feel that children are not marketed to enough in a society in which a two-year-old sees 25,000 ads a year? Then you'll love the Vine knockoff TikTok, which has cornered the market on inane short videos that middle-schoolers absolutely devour! And that's not just stereotyping, as it's actually really popular among young people, which takes the "ugh" level of what I'm about to describe up a few notches.
According to the FTC, parent company ByteDance used "disturbing practices ... collecting and exposing the location" of young children using an early iteration of the app. Oh, and by the way, it has over half a billion users. And considering that about 40% of TikTok's users can't legally drink yet, that means that TikTok is now a world leader in gathering data about unsuspecting kids. See, it sounds gross when you say it like that.
When parents found out and complained, their kids' accounts would be shut down, but their posts and personal information would remain accessible. An investigation of ByteDance led to an unprecedented $5.7 million fine, but with a $75 billion valuation, is that really going to change anything? That's like hoping Microsoft will go under if you steal all of the coins in the cushions of Bill Gates' couch.
In case you've been living under a rock (or haven't checked your Twitter feed this year), Uber drivers just held a massive strike, protesting the company's IPO and diminishing pay. Between this and Uber's many other issues, criticizing its business practices might seem like beating a dead ridesharing horse at this point, but this deceased pony needs a whoopin'. Uber's IPO disclosures revealed unsettling details of their business model ... like how they might never turn a profit.
Unless, that is, they stop paying drivers entirely.
According to SEC filings, Uber "may not achieve profitability" because their operating costs are too high (despite having an average of 91 million monthly users and $11.3 billion in revenue in 2018). They've also been spending billions on the development of self-driving automobiles. It doesn't take a business genius to see where this is headed.
That means that while drivers are hoping that they'll someday earn the same benefits and legal protections as other workers (there's a bill to do this in California, and UK courts are siding with the drivers so far), Uber clearly has other plans. Their business model depends entirely on squeezing the drivers until those "costs" reach zero (and it's hard to imagine Lyft isn't in the exact same boat). So it's less about growing a workforce of dedicated, satisfied employees and more about building a fleet of robot cars that won't balk when someone throws up in them.
A defining characteristic of today's American workplace is an emphasis on the collective hive mind working toward a common goal. Jeff Bezos calls it "vision." Elon Musk says it's being "hardcore." Call it what you want, leaders of American companies are asking their workers for more and more nights and weekends, often paying lip service to it being "optional" when every single employee knows they're in the dog house if they don't show.
Epic Games, the corporation behind Fortnite, isn't the only game developer guilty of this, but they've really unlocked a new Achievement on this one, reportedly asking workers to spend more than 70 hours a week developing games as "disposable" members of the team. This is the kind of thing games normally have to do during "crunch time" before a release date, but with Fortnite -- which is constantly adding new content -- it's always crunch time. This, you will be shocked to hear, is pretty terrible for your health.
So what is Epic doing with this mountain of cash they're sitting on? Stifling competition, obviously. Epic is aggressively pursuing exclusive releases on their online store (that can then be sold nowhere else), limiting both gamers' and independent developers' options. When Epic announced Metro: Exodus would be an Epic Games exclusive TWO WEEKS before its launch, many fans had already preordered the game through Steam, the biggest online game distributor.
Even worse, you have games that were crowdfunded by fans on Kickstarter. Like Shenmue III (funded with $6.3 million in fan contributions), which Epic then swept in and snatched up as an exclusive, even though fans paid with a written promise they could play the game on Steam. That's how you make the real money in gaming: fucking over employees and players alike.
Perhaps you've seen Robinhood's ads on YouTube, which show the investment app aimed at good-natured people like YOU, who don't know much about this whole "investing in stocks thing" and still want to take care of yourself and your future. But for a company that claims to be inspired by Occupy Wall Street, Robinhood has more in common with the big evil banking industry than you might think.
The app makes its money primarily from premium accounts and taking interest on untouched cash sitting in accounts -- which, to be fair, is a standard practice for brokerages. The problem? Unlike the big banks the app is "rebelling against," Robinhood is not FDIC-insured, making their recent attempts to allow checking and savings accounts with guaranteed interest suspect at best.
But the biggest issue with Robinhood is actually in its design. See, the vast majority of financial advisors recommend that casual investors buy and hold valuable stocks and funds for the long haul. Robinhood, though, is aimed at the Youths, with their social media and their instant gratification and their "spilling the tea," and thus decided to feature sexier (i.e. more volatile) stocks, like Tesla, on its front page. If that's not irresponsible enough, purchasing a stock causes confetti to fall across your screen. You know, like it's a fun game being played with the money that you've worked super hard for.
This gamification of stock trading encourages users to buy and sell at a high rate, in a system that is so difficult to succeed in that even professional investors can't out-pick a cat throwing a toy mouse at a grid. Like many other tools for investing, Robinhood has the power to do good for its users, but like the banking industry Robinhood pretends to stand up against, the app's designers seem to forget that with great (financial) power comes great (financial) responsibility.
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Just what is it that makes funny people stop being funny for a living?
Being a household name doesn't exactly make someone a role model.
I know this only because that's what people told me.