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The brands finally understand TikTok

The era of corporate-engineered songs has come to the app. What does that mean for the rest of TikTok?

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A still image from Elf Cosmetics’ #eyeslipsface TikTok campaign.
Elf Cosmetics
Rebecca Jennings is a senior correspondent covering social platforms and the creator economy. Since joining Vox in 2018, her work has explored the rise of TikTok, internet aesthetics, and the pursuit of money and fame online. You can sign up for her biweekly Vox Culture newsletter here.

A few months after TikTok’s August 2018 US debut, the New York Times’s Kevin Roose wrote that scrolling through the app brought him an emotion “I haven’t felt in a long time while on the internet.” That feeling was joy. To this, he attributed the absence of the things that turned decade-old social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram into miserable hellholes: news, trolls, and crucially, ads.

TikTok’s rather disorienting lack of timestamps, non-chronological feed, and hidden comments section have mostly kept the app free of those first two miseries. But the lack of advertising radically changed almost immediately after Roose published the piece last December. In January, TikTok began testing ads that popped up as soon as a user opened the app. Within a few months, it served mid-roll ads sandwiched between every half-dozen or so videos on the home “For You” feed.

Cut to October, and now brands that until recently never had a presence on TikTok are becoming unsettlingly adept at replicating the kind of content that made it the happiest, goofiest, best place on the internet for weird, 15-seconds videos created by bored teenagers. It’s just another part of TikTok’s transition into adulthood, sure, but it’s also indicative of a broader shift away from what made TikTok worth wasting time on in the first place.

The first thing I saw when I opened TikTok on a recent morning was a sponsored post by the makeup brand Elf Cosmetics: a frantic edit of popular TikTokers mouthing the lyrics to a song that sounded like a great number of other songs going viral right now. It had the catchy pluckiness of young female rappers Stunna Girl, Saweetie, Flo Milli, and Killumantii, whom TikTok has helped turn into stars. But it was the voice of Holla FyeSixWun, whom Elf described as an up-and-coming artist from Florida.

The song, which takes inspiration from Kash Doll’s 2018 hit “Ice Me Out” and is called “Eyes Lips Face” after the brand name’s acronym, has the distinction of being the very first commissioned for a TikTok campaign. That is, if you can count a 15-second piece of music engineered specifically for a social media app a “song,” even though “jingle” doesn’t quite work, either.

Elf Cosmetics wasn’t among the handful of brands that had worked on advertising campaigns since TikTok began ad campaigns in November 2018. Starting with the fashion brand Guess, others like American Eagle, Chipotle, and Walmart launched hashtag challenges wherein, for instance, Chipotle would “challenge” users to upload a video of themselves flipping a Chipotle burrito bowl lid and tag their videos #ChipotleLidFlip. Over its six-day run, users submitted 110,000 videos and garnered 104 million video views.

It wasn’t until August 2019 that marketing data convinced Elf that it could use TikTok to reach thousands of fans who happened to have already congregated on the platform — Elf CMO Kory Marchisotto says the videos tagged #elfcosmetics had a collective 3.5 million views even before Elf Cosmetics joined TikTok.

It was around that time that Elf reached out to Brooklyn-based creative agency Movers + Shakers. They’d never run a TikTok campaign, either, but together alongside TikTok’s marketing team, the three organizations decided to do something that hadn’t yet been done on the platform: Compose an original song to go alongside its hashtag challenge. Nearly all of the brand’s previous advertisers had done the latter, but none had yet written a piece of music.

In late September, Movers + Shakers then tapped Grammy-winning producer iLL Wayno and, according to the official press release, “a fresh voice from Florida, Holla FyeSixWun” to create the piece. “It was pretty simple, they said they needed a 15-second clip, something fresh, and something with ‘eyes, lips, face,’” says the LA-based iLL Wayno, whose real name is Dwayne Shippy, over the phone. “So I pretty much just wrote this piece and had the artist do it, and that’s it. That was last week. It only took, like, a couple hours to make it and send it back and forth for revisions.”

When I mention that I couldn’t find any trace of an artist named Holla FyeSixWun on the internet, however, he laughs. “[That’s] actually my girlfriend. She does advertising.” What happened was: the brand wanted a female voice, and it was two in the morning, and his girlfriend happened to be the most convenient choice in the room. ‘I’m a producer for a lot of people, so I know how to make artists sound good,” he says. (She does!)

The next step was involving the TikTok community: It tapped a handful of influencers, including “kombucha girl” Brittany Tomlinson, to promote the song in their own videos with the intention that their followers would do the same, and they did: Today, there are nearly 18,000 TikTok videos using the song “Eyes Lips Face,” and collectively the videos tagged with #eyeslipsface have been viewed nearly 1.2 billion times. On October 11, Elf announced that it had turned “Eyes Lips Face” into an entire full-length song, now available on Spotify.

It was, by any measure, an extremely successful advertising campaign on an app that corporate interests are only just beginning to harness the potential for money-making. TikTok stars, even those with under 100,000 followers, are now being asked to shill products for brands, just as they would on Instagram.

It’s now undoubtedly the best place to find fresh young talent in comedy, music, theater, art, and dance, and the app’s biggest stars are already signed to major talent agencies: Tomlinson, whose August video of herself trying kombucha went viral not only on TikTok but on Twitter, Instagram, and the rest of the internet, recently signed with UTA. Reigning king of the e-boys Noen Eubanks started as a high school senior in the Atlanta suburbs and a year later is now the face of a YouTube media company and lives in the Hollywood Hills.

Artists whose songs have gone viral on TikTok have been quickly snatched up by record labels, some making millions in the process. Its most famous success story, of course, is Lil Nas X, the now-household name who went viral for his hit “Old Town Road,” which recently broke the all-time record for the longest run at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100.

As John Shahidi, founder of digital production company and talent agency Shots Studios, told the Hollywood Reporter, “If you had called me at the end of June, I would have told you, ‘I don’t think it’s for us.’ Now we have a dedicated team just on TikTok.”

The creative agency behind the Elf campaign, Movers + Shakers, is now acting as a shepherd for brands looking to dip their toes into TikTok. It recently held a webinar for around 50 brand leaders, where it dispensed advice on engaging audiences and creating hashtag challenges.

Evan Horowitz, the CEO of Movers + Shakers, says that the biggest mistake advertisers make on TikTok is recycling their Instagram ads and shoving them on TikTok. “TikTok is the opposite of Instagram in some important ways: Instagram is all about your most polished ‘best life’ that you put out there, and TikTok is so real, it’s so raw,” he says. “It’s just about sharing on the spot, filming in your bedroom. It was really important to us that whatever we created for this campaign feel very native in the way that TikTok operates.”

The irony, of course, is that brands having a presence on TikTok at all is inherently antithetical to TikTok’s ethos of authenticity. But it doesn’t really matter, because to be a brand on TikTok right now, Horowitz says, is like getting in on the ground floor. “I think a lot of marketers remember when Instagram was new, and it was easy to get followers, and inexpensive to participate in,” he says. “TikTok is at that really amazing moment right now.”

This turn toward corporate interests has not been lost on the TikTok community. Plenty of users post videos about the thirstiness of brands that I see regularly on my own feed; many of the TikToks that make it to the For You page are meta-commentaries about what’s happening on the app.

Hashtag challenges that brands create get quickly co-opted by users who have no intention of “putting their own creative spin” on the campaign and instead use it in their (entirely unrelated) posts in the hopes that the mysterious TikTok algorithm will help serve it to more people. The most-liked video using the song “Eyes Lips Face,” for instance, isn’t even part of the original advertisement: It’s a guy making a joke about taking a photo for his school newspaper.

That’s not to say it’s a bad campaign — it’s a startlingly good one, precisely because it looks exactly like everything else on the app. Instead, it’s a harbinger of what’s to come: Brands that saturated Facebook and Instagram with advertisements appearing identical to non-sponsored posts are doing the same on TikTok. It’s only a matter of how fast the clock is, well, ticking.

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