Squid Game-inspired advertising is almost as dystopian as the show itself
“Squid Game” is a cultural phenomenon, but the brand’s efforts to reference the Korean thriller seem to have failed as some commercials don’t fully explain the show’s gritty premise.
Since the premiere on September 17, the magenta-colored guardian costumes, the minimalist business cards and the Dalgona game about life and death have been firmly anchored in pop culture. This weekend, you’re likely to see people wearing Squid Game-inspired Halloween costumes (tracksuits are almost sold out at Walmart, which recently announced a partnership with Netflix to sell streamer show-inspired merch). The show has also inspired themed events where players compete in real life in the show’s games – without risking their lives.
Following the popularity of “Squid Game,” companies rushed to incorporate the show into promotional campaigns by weaving brand logos into Dalgona goodies and the game’s icons. Some of these ads, while well-intentioned, may be considered blatant due to the sensitive topics on the show, which follows a group of highly indebted characters who compete in violent, gruesome games to win enough money to pay off their debts be felt.
Durex Pakistan, for example, swapped the circle in the game’s symbols for a condom and captioned the Instagram post, “How long can you hold out?” A brand spokesperson did not immediately respond to NBC News’ interview request.
According to Jay Baer, author and social media marketing strategist, the brands’ eagerness to jump on the phenomenon of “Squid Game” is just the latest attempt to use the zeitgeist of social media. Where this type of marketing used to be cheap and offered companies global reach, algorithms are increasingly reducing the reach of companies.
“It’s difficult for brands because social media coverage used to be mostly cheap, now it’s very expensive,” said Baer. “So brands will do almost anything to get ‘free exposure’ from quotations without quotation. And the best way to get theoretically free is to make your brand part of a conversation that’s so pervasive that the algorithms can’t suppress it. “
Success on social media is based on taking risks, but it can be counterproductive to come across as inauthentic or push an ad that makes users shudder, Baer said. Because of the dark social commentary at the core of Squid Game, navigation becomes riskier for brands.
“Squid Game” became Netflix’s biggest series launch with more than 111 million viewers, the streamer said this month. But despite its international success, the show met with unease in South Korea because it portrayed the country’s poverty and debt crisis.
Reluctance to talk about debt isn’t just confined to South Korea, and the light-hearted nature of many of the Squid Game-inspired ads can add to the discomfort when discussing debt.
Feeling shame and discomfort when talking about debt crosses cultural boundaries. Bruce McClary, vice president of communications for the National Foundation for Credit Counseling (NFCC), told NBC News that debts are not uncommon, even if not openly discussed.
Having debt for reasons beyond our control, such as a medical crisis, is easier to discuss. But people are more likely to “feel a little more shame” when it comes to debt due to circumstances they consider to be personal failure, like gambling or over-spending, McClary said.
Despite the shame of being in debt, seeking advice was difficult and joking about someone’s vulnerable situation could make them less receptive to help, he added.
Relief, an app that negotiates interest rate cuts with creditors and sets up payment plans on behalf of users, distributed 10,000 nondescript business cards with the “Squid Game” logo in New York and Miami, AdAge reported. On the show, a character named “The Salesman” recruits desperate gamers for the competition by inviting them to bet on paper chips in a game called Ddakji before handing them the cryptic business cards. Relief’s cards are almost identical to those on the show, but instead of a phone number asking players to agree to fight to their death, the cards read, “There’s a better way to get out of debt.”
McClary noted that the ad might get attention, but he sees that some in a desperate situation would think she is insensitive. For example, the NFCC advises people at risk of bankruptcy and foreclosure.
“If you are serious about the help you offer, approach it in a way that is very serious and respectful of a person’s circumstances,” said McClary. “Making a joke about someone’s circumstances is not a good way of portraying yourself as a competent solution to the problem.”
Relief did not immediately respond to NBC News’ request for comment.
Other Squid Game-inspired ads seem to demonstrate a lack of understanding of the show’s premise.
In one of the games, players had to carve a select shape out of a delicate sugar chip known as a dalgona or ppopgi without cracking the original shape. Those who do not will be killed.
Some brands superimposed their logos on the candy instead of the shapes used in “Squid Game”. Hyundai, Brooks Brothers, and Pepsi released models of the branded candy.
The campaigns have generated mixed reactions on social media.
A now-deleted tweet from Hyundai seemed to hit a nerve with some users on Twitter, given the ongoing labor disputes between workers and automakers in Korea. The unionized members of Hyundai Motors have held a strike almost every year since it was founded in 1987, which they avoided that year with a provisional wage agreement.
Some Twitter users also pointed to the unfortunate link with the workers’ strike at the car factory that traumatized one of the show’s main characters.
Hyundai did not immediately respond to a request for comment from NBC News on the backlash to the now-deleted tweet.
And while the Brooks Brothers Dalgona tweet received significantly less attention, Baer suggested that the brand, whose primary audience is those who want to be on corporate boardrooms, was also distasteful.
“Sometimes you don’t get it right, but I think in this case some of those are just plain bad luck,” said Baer. “Hyundai is really shockingly unconfident – bring Brooks Brothers to a similar camp.”
The backlash to brand presence in this specific area of pop culture reflects a wider aversion to social media marketing, Baer said.
Branded social media accounts on Twitter and TikTok are designed to be embedded in online culture, but efforts to humanize brands seem rather artificial. Companies promoting “Squid Game” – a direct social commentary on the wealth gap continued by large corporations – may appear ignorant.
“It’s like the whole show is about it, it’s a commentary on the problem you have. Of course, not specifically these brands, but such brands, ”said Baer. “And then to say it’s not so fun, we did one [Dalgona] Cookie too … you wonder whether the people involved actually saw the show. ”