The biggest viral stories this year include chicken sandwiches, genre defying songs, generational warfare, and plenty of lessons for brands…
Gen Z’s “Ok Boomer” Battle Cry
In November, “Ok Boomer” became a “rallying cry” summing up Gen Z’s frustration with the older generation. The New York Times reported on the trending phrase claiming it all started with a TikTok video of a white-haired man criticizing Gen Z and Millennials for never wanting to grow up—to which young viewers commented, “ok boomer.” But Know Your Meme notes that early instances on Twitter trace back to April 2018. (Though those too were responses to older people criticizing Gen Z and Millennials.) Whatever its origins, the phrase took on a life of its own at the end of 2019, as a response to “basically any person over 30 who says something condescending about young people—and the issues that matter to them.” It was scrawled on notebooks, carved into pumpkins, used in senior photos, and featured on tons of merch sold by teens Amazon, Redbubble, Spreadshirt, and more. Teens selling the merch were reportedly making thousands on their “OK Boomer” gear while TikTok and Twitter videos featuring the phrase racked up views. The generational battle cry is still being used, though not quite as much—it might have jumped the shark when Fox Media filed a trademark application for “OK Boomer” with plans to develop a television show, as Business Insider reported. Fox is not the only group to file for trademark—and they’re unlikely to succeed. But while its moment in the spotlight might be over, it’s still a powerful example of the generational strife and resentment that’s still brewing.
The Internet Fell In Love With Baby Yoda
Disney+ launched in November, and their Star War series The Mandalorian became an instant viral hit—thanks to Baby Yoda. The internet fell in love with the character, making him the star of memes and fan posts across social media. As NBC News put it, “’Baby Yoda’ owns the internet.” The undeniable cuteness of tiny Yoda is clearly universally appealing, but fans were asking just one question: where was the Baby Yoda toys and tees? After a long (ok, not that long) wait, Disney announced that Baby Yoda merch, including apparel, stuffed animals, and more, but they weren’t available in time for the holidays . It turns out Disney and Lucasfilms held back on releasing the in-demand product to keep spoilers from hitting fans too soon. That restraint lost the brand—and Hasbro—millions in revenue. (Almost $3 million, to be exact.) Demand for the products are so high that a Baby Yoda became the best-selling plush toy on Amazon, even though it won’t be available until March 2020. The obsession with the adorable green character is also continuing via memes and stories—like the fan who got a tattoo of Baby Yoda drinking a Whiteclaw, combining two of the biggest viral stories of the year.
The New Popeye’s Chicken Sandwich Started a Brand Beef
This year, Popeye’s debuted a chicken sandwich, and the internet descended into chaos. Many were ecstatic; the poultry concoction is apparently delicious, per The New Yorker—so delicious, in fact, that it sold out at many locations inciting panic across social media. Others were excited about more than flavor, though: unlike some other popular chains, Popeye’s chicken sandwich isn’t tainted by controversial social stances. (The Advocate’s article on the debut was titled “More Flavor, Less Homophobia.”) So, the new sandwich was already flying high on user tweets alone, but of course fast food Twitter took it the next level. Chick-fil-A defended their menu item as the “original,” while Wendy’s, Shake Shack, and even Boston Market started some beef over chicken. The intense attention the sandwich received on social media inspired Popeye’s to invest in digital marketing. CNBC reported that the brand held back on a TV campaign for the launch, in favor of letting a “well timed” tweet grow interest organically. It worked, and sales increased 10.2%, making it their most successful product launch in years—without a single TV ad. Now they’ll be increasing digital spending up to 30% in the next few years. They also took the opportunity to continue the brand war with Chick-fil-A in November, announcing the in-demand menu item would return on a Sunday—when Chick-fil-A is infamously closed. Oh, and they capitalized on all the attention with an ugly holiday sweater featuring the sandwich—which also quickly sold out.
It Was A White Claw Summer For 21+ Millennials
This was the year of hard seltzer—thanks in large part to the White Claw Summer meme that took off in July and August. In late June, young comedian Trevor Wallace released “*Drinks White Claw Once*”—a YouTube video in which he transforms into a pastel-wearing bro upon his first sip of a White Claw. The spiked seltzer, which had been introduced in 2016, was starting to gain notable popularity, but Wallace’s work of art gained over 20 million views on Facebook, five million on Twitter, and 1.7 million on YouTube thanks to quotes like “Ain’t no laws when you’re drinking claws” and “It’s like a Four Loko that went to private school.” The viral hit is credited with catapulting the spiked seltzer to Millennial cult status, and officially making the summer of 2019, White Claw Summer. Thanks to the trend, more brands are planning hard seltzer releases, with Four Loko and Bud Light both debuting new seltzers in 2020. Both will also be including black cherry in their lines—a clear attempt to steal White Claw drinkers by copying their most popular flavor.
Vita Coco Upped The Ante For Crazy Twitter Accounts
Food brands have earned a reputation as the weirdest accounts on social media, going viral for ironic memes and behaving like humans (even when it makes everyone worried they’re actually depressed), but Vita Coco may have finally crossed a line. Vox reported that when the author of a HuffPost article called “Coconut Water Is Disgusting” tweeted, “Popular opinion: Coconut water is f**king disgusting,” Vita Coco decided to engage. The conversation culminated in the author writing that he’d “rather drink your social media persons piss than coconut water.” Vita Coco didn’t back down, tweeting back an image of an employee holding up a branded bottle of yellow liquid in the bathroom. They confirmed to New York Magazine’s @4evrmalone that the liquid was, in fact, “pee.” The story blew up, and Vita Coco was accused of taking brand antics too far—but YPulse found that 69% of young social media users find it funny when brand accounts act like people and 2019 was certainly the year they delivered.
“Old Town Road” Defied Genres
“Old Town Road” started as a viral TikTok song and became a record-breaking chart topper—making headlines along the way. According to Rolling Stone, Lil Nas X had about 3,000 Soundcloud followers when NiceMichael turned his song into a TikTok clip (with the artist’s permission); after that video and countless others went viral, “Old Town Road” became a record-breaking, genre-bending hit and Lil Nas X landed major record deals. The song went even more viral after some controversy over its genre. The unexpected hit was rising through the ranks of Billboard’s country chart when the publication took it down, telling Rolling Stone it was nixed for “not embrac[ing] enough elements of today’s country music to chart in its current version.” The statement spurred an internet war that had the 78% of 13-36-year-olds who tell YPulse that their music taste doesn’t fall into just one category riled. Pitchfork reports that some questioned how much Lil Nas X’s race had a part to play in the re-classification, too. However, Billy Ray Cyrus stepped in and lent the song his vocals and his credibility in a remixed version of the track that broke through to number one on the Hot Country Songs Chart, is played on country radio stations across the country, and has over 33 million YouTube views.