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The Multi-Million Dollar Industry of Creating Cringe

2021-05-04

Is bad content, the new good content?

Cian Duffy
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Netflix, Five Minute Crafts and influencers like LeLe Pons and Sebastian Bails might be on to something. A few years after The Great Fall of Instagram Presets, the clear path to becoming a successful content creator had become hazy. The content that worked was all of a sudden old school and not appealing.

That was back in 2018 (ages ago, we know). Since then brands and creators have been taking an authentic approach to how they post. Dove started multiple campaigns like their #NoDigitalDistortion campaign and creators like Brittany Tomlinson are showing what their lives actually look like instead of what they want us to think it looks like. The content they are putting out still is good quality, but it is also honest.

If pristine Instagram aesthetics and curated feeds are one side of the content spectrum and Brittany Tomlinson and Dove’s authentic content is moving closer to the center, recently the internet has shifted all the way to the other side. Content that is “cringey” is taking over, and it’s working. New video creation tools like Facebook Watch, TikTok, Snapchat Spotlight and Instagram Reelz are making it easier for everyday people to create lots of different types of content–and they’re testing to see what works.

Cringe content is hard to define. Cringe content is any type of content that provides such a level of vicarious embarrassment that it makes the viewer uncomfortable. Why we’re captivated by this form of content is even harder to explain. It’s similar to why some people like to “hate-watch” certain TV shows and movies or why shows like The Office, Nathan For You and Curb Your Enthusiasm are enjoyable and painfully awkward at the same time.

If you Google “cringe content,” you will get thousands of results of “try not to cringe” videos and listicles. Media like Vox, NBC and The New York Times are writing editorials trying to crack the code of online cringey virality. These cringe creators’ social accounts are gaining millions of views and likes, and hundreds of thousands of followers. The creators are able to make a living because in recent years, digital content is all about engagement. Their comments, shares and followers are directly making a profit.

This is a compelling strategy to consider for brands because, for the first time, you don’t have to be the best or even necessarily good at creating content to generate buzz. Whether on social media, a blog or a video, it may be easier and more effective to create alternative content that’s “cringey” and gain traction than trying to fit someone else’s mold of what you’re supposed to produce.


The examples that we’ve linked above are extreme–creatives who’ve dedicated their lives to putting out this type of material–but that isn’t the only way you can make cringe work for you. Companies like TheSoul Publishing, the media company behind Five Minute Crafts, work with brands to create content that is all things “cringey” and overall just bizarre. Their channels, having a combined 500 million subscribers on YouTube and 350 million followers on Facebook, allow them to do an insane amount of product placement and brand promotion within their videos, which leads to high click-through rates and purchases for affiliated brands.

Netflix shows like Bling Empire and Too Hot To Handle are a different medium of cringe, but they help get across a key theme to success when looking at using this content strategy. Even if the personalities on these shows are unaware of this, they are unapologetically authentic. They put themselves on display—which let’s face it, is brave— as 100% themselves for people to decide to like or not. And whether or not we like them doesn’t determine their success. It is up to the producers of these shows to back them up with authentic storytelling tactics that further drive home what we love or hate about these personalities and keep us coming back.

The same goes for any brand, authenticity has to be at the forefront of your cringey strategy for it to work. The cringe should be in keeping with what your brand is trying to do and the story you're trying to tell. But most importantly, it's all about having fun, being yourself and not taking it all too seriously (while also taking it seriously). So yes, there is still some purpose and nuance to all of this.

It also doesn't mean that all of your content moving forward should be cringe-worthy. If anything, make it sparse. Or better, make it random, as if it's not "supposed" to be out there for public consumption. Or designate a fringe character to take the hits (like everyone’s favorite Mainer ski bum Donny Pelletier). Cringe content is like any content strategy–you have to find the right angle for your brand.