December 03, 2014

Looking Smart

The Internet is bombarded each day by millions of questions, many of them incredibly dumb. But perhaps the saddest (or funniest) one I've encountered was this one: "What's a book I should read to make girls think I'm smart in a hot way?"

Whether the inquirer was serious or joking, we're all guilty of thinking this way from time to time. We hone our own hobbies and personality over the course of many years, discovering along the way the niches we fit best in. But occasionally we find ourselves wanting the respect of an audience that is way outside our comfort zone. Maybe you've moved to a new city and want to fit in, so you buy the hat of a local sports team and pretend to know a couple players' names. Or your boss is a big Beatles fan, so you make repeated references to the four songs of theirs you know.

Of course, these attempts to be someone you're not fall apart at the first real scrutiny. As soon as you mispronounce the name of the star quarterback or say "Yellow Submarine" is your favorite song, the gig is up and you look ridiculous. Clearly, being yourself would have been the better course. So what if you don't share every interest with someone—there are plenty of other ways to bond with someone, and they'll more likely appreciate you being authentic.

Some of the most cringeworthy examples of this thinking, though, come from the business world. As brands jump on the social media bandwagon they find themselves wanting to appeal to the "hip" younger demographic that populates Twitter. So, they often adopt slang and cultural references they see floating around and clumsily apply them to their product. That's how you get IHOP tweeting things like this:

At best, these feel like the equivalent of your grandma using "bling" in a sentence. At worst, they have earned accusations of cultural appropriation, as much of the slang and voice that this account has slapped on to pictures of pancakes emerged directly from the black community. It's hard to see how either reading benefits the IHOP brand.

Of course, there are ways to have a goofy sense of humor, even when running a corporate account. Dos Equis plays off it's national TV ad campaigns in dumb but funny ways. Charmin has gotten positive attention for playing along with comedians on their account.

So, if you want people to think you're smart, you can't just borrow a book. If you want to come across as funny, you have to have a real sense of humor. Establishing and promoting an identity can be difficult, but imitation and forgery is a bad way to get started.