April 12, 2024

TikTok turns to nuns, veterans and ranchers in marketing blitz

In a TV commercial, Sister Monica Clare, a nun in northern New Jersey, walks through a church bathed in sunlight and sits in a pew while crossing herself. Her message: TikTok is a force for good.

“Thanks to TikTok, I have created a community where people can feel safe asking questions about spirituality,” she says in the ad.

Sister Monica Clare is one of many TikTok fans — along with drawling ranchers, a Navy veteran known as Patriotic Kenny and entrepreneurs — who are highlighting the company in commercials as it faces intense criticism in Washington.

“TikTok definitely has a branding problem in the United States,” Sister Monica Clare, 58, said in an interview. “Most people you talk to, especially people over 60, will say TikTok is just a bunch of superficial crap. They don’t use it. They don’t understand what the content is.

“It’s very smart of TikTok to say no, that’s not what we are – we’re much more than that,” she added.

That appears to be the idea driving TikTok’s multimillion-dollar marketing blitz on TV and rival social platforms across the country — tagged #KeepTikTok — as the Senate considers a bill that would force the company’s Chinese owner, ByteDance, to sell the app or cause it to face a national ban. Many lawmakers from both parties have said the app could compromise the private data of American users or be used as a Chinese propaganda tool.

Since the House of Representatives voted in favor of the bill three weeks ago, the company has spent at least $3.1 million on advertising time for commercials that will run through April, according to data from AdImpact, a media tracking company. Some of the places most heavily targeted are presidential election battleground states Pennsylvania, Nevada and Ohio, according to the data. According to Meta’s Ad Library, TikTok also recently spent more than $100,000 on Facebook and Instagram ads.

TikTok said it spent more than AdImpact data showed, but the company did not provide details. When asked about its advertising efforts, Michael Hughes, a spokesperson for TikTok, said: “We believe the general public should know that the government is trying to trample the free speech rights of 170 million Americans and crush seven million small businesses across the country to destroy.”

The ads are part of a broad lobbying campaign by TikTok to reshape the company’s perception among lawmakers and the public. It has strongly opposed the bill, which it has framed as an outright ban, saying it has not shared data with Beijing nor will it allow any government to influence the algorithmic recommendations of videos users can watch .

ByteDance spent $8.7 million on lobbying last year, according to OpenSecrets, a nonprofit research group, and its internal team and a variety of outside companies are trying to influence lawmakers. It has rallied its massive user base to contact their representatives, although some of these efforts may have backfired. And TikTok CEO Shou Chew is co-chairing this spring’s Met Gala, where TikTok will be the headline sponsor.

TikTok began amplifying the stories of everyday Americans like Sister Monica Clare and Patriotic Kenny last year through a campaign called TikTok Sparks Good. Much of that effort seemed to be aimed at a conservative audience. It spent an estimated $19 million on TV ads that largely appeared on news programs, mainly Fox News, according to data from iSpot.tv, a TV measurement company. TikTok aired more than a dozen ads last year during Republican presidential debates or debate-related programming, the company said. Ads promoting creators from last year’s campaign are still running.

“It’s such a classic tactic,” says Cait Lamberton, a marketing professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. “They take an idea, put it in a human’s mouth and allow you to connect with that human.”

She added: “TikTok positions itself as a brand that stands for freedom and democratization of communication and, frankly, for a lot of values ​​that most people are quite comfortable with.”

One of TikTok’s newer TV ads was filmed last month when the company flew dozens of creators to Washington to protest the House bill. The ad is narrated by its creators and shows several signs reading, “TikTok changed my life for the better,” on the steps of the Capitol.

Trevor Boffone, a teacher at the University of Houston with more than 300,000 followers on TikTok, is also in the ad, describing how the app made him a better teacher and connected with audiences far beyond his classroom.

He said he had been to events full of TikTok creators who had been into “doing fun things and dancing,” but that the group in Washington was “a radically different group of people.”

TikTok gathered “ordinary Americans with amazing stories of how the platform helped them with their mental health, their disabilities and various crises in their communities, like wildfires and even open heart surgery,” he said. “All these really important ways that this platform has created community in ways that lawmakers don’t know about.”

Mr. Boffone, 38, said the group’s liaisons at TikTok had urged the creators to talk to their senators about the bill. (Sister Monica Clare said she had written a letter opposing the bill to Senator Cory Booker, Democrat of New Jersey. Mr. Boffone said he had not yet been able to contact his representative.)

Its creators worried that even a divestiture of TikTok from ByteDance “could change the culture of the app,” he said.

“We’ve seen what happened to Twitter and how Twitter is just a shell of what it once was,” Mr. Boffone said. “Congress should look at comprehensive data security and legislation around social media and digital platforms that look at Meta, that look at Google.”

Americans will likely see different ads about TikTok as third-party groups also grab hold of the bill.

The American Civil Liberties Union, which sees the legislation as a threat to First Amendment rights, last month posted Facebook and Instagram ads linking to a letter of opposition that people could send to their senators. A spokeswoman for the organization said it had no formal partnership or fundraising relationship with TikTok or ByteDance.

Supporters of the bill are also posting advertisements. Newly formed nonprofit groups led by conservatives, whose supporters are unclear, have aired TV commercials and posted ads on social media.

One of those groups, the American Parents Coalition, is led by Alleigh Marré, the founder of a public relations firm and spokeswoman for the Department of Health and Human Services in the Trump administration. She promised “a seven-figure public awareness campaign” called “TikTok Is Poison” in a March 20 press release.

Another group, State Armor Action, is led by Michael Lucci, a former policy adviser to a Republican governor in Illinois and a former Trump appointee to a Federal Labor Relations Authority panel. The group also announced a multimillion-dollar ad campaign targeting TikTok on March 20.

Ms. Marré said her group’s TikTok effort was its first campaign, but declined to share information about its backers. Mr. Lucci also declined to identify his group’s donors but said he believed TikTok “should be divested to American ownership.”

The intensity of the battle has become clear to Sister Monica Clare. She was thrilled when her commercial aired, she said, but was soon surprised when she received hate mail and even a few angry phone calls.

“It was a rush of ‘Oh, so exciting’ and then ‘Oh, what a bummer,’” she said. “It was really from people who harbored the idea that China is spying on us through TikTok, from people who have probably never used social media in their lives.”

She said she was hopeful that TikTok’s marketing efforts, including the ad, would help send a different message about the app. (The company made a $500 donation to her monastery in Mendham, N.J., for her participation, she said.)

“There’s a huge community of people doing well on TikTok,” she said.

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