Formerly SeamlessWeb, Seamless is a leader in online food ordering and delivery service that allows customers to not only place their meal request with a few clicks of a mouse, but also to browse through the menus, reviews, and ratings of various restaurants in their vicinity. Designed to remedy the hassles that sometimes manifest while ordering over the phone, Seamless boasts about its accuracy, convenience and ability to provide a more informed purchase without making patrons open multiple accounts with separate businesses. Since its launch in 2000, it has partnered with over 12,000 restaurants and caters to thirteen large cities in the United States as well as London, United Kingdom. Due to its limited reach outside of urban areas, Seamless’ advertisement campaign seems to target a mentality that is often associated with big city living. It interpolates a consumer who is a young, well-educated and media-savvy professional with a comfortable salary and a liberal mindset. Although this audience appears to be every advertiser’s dream in theory, this market is also the most difficult to reach due to its jaded perspective on consumerism. Therefore, it is worthwhile to explore how Seamless successfully mobilizes this public to endorse its product.
Why would Seamless perceive these young adults as desirable targets? From an advertisers’ perspective, these consumers strike the perfect balance between youth and income stability. As part of the maturing generation, they hold a considerable amount of power within popular culture in terms of setting trends for other markets. In American society, youth is associated with positive ideals such as beauty, carefreeness and individualism, hearkening back to a time when everything felt possible. By oppositional nature, aging is held to be a negative process that no one wishes to endure. Therefore, those who can slow down their “decline” are seen as possessing more cultural value. “Youthfulness, or what might be labeled youngness—a nostalgic and fantasized state of looking and feeling young without having any of the cares and concerns that youth actually face—has a strong appeal for many older individuals” (Leiss et al. 319). Advertisers tap into this anxiety by employing youth as a selling point in their campaigns to capture those who long to be young again and who believe that lifestyle choices are a better indicator of age than a birth certificate. Consequently, if Seamless seeks to expand its target market in the future, it is best to first win over the youth as the other generations will likely follow suit in an attempt to relive their heyday.
Advertisements often focus on professionals just entering into their careers because of their assumedly substantial amount of disposable income. “Forty-six million people between the ages of eighteen and twenty-nine years already had an annual collective spending power of $125 billion” (Turow 78). Those who fall into this age range normally are not expected to support families and thus have the luxury of dishing out their salary on commodities for reasons other than necessity. Raising children is an expensive endeavor that requires parents to budget their cash more closely in preparation for the future and to put their offsprings’ needs before their own. This lack of responsibility for young adult consumers, who are typically known for living in the present, allows them to base financial decisions solely on their own personal satisfaction, which may include acquiring an item for its newness or aesthetics as opposed to its practicality. There is not much tying these individuals down, so they can be flexible with their purse strings by experimenting with different products on whim. As a result, young professionals as a public set the trends for other markets and use their comfortable salary to fuel and indulge in them. They, “Who are for the most part, are so damn rich that they can afford to stay on top of all the coolest culture trends” (Klein 81). Aware of this audience’s influence and expendable cash, companies like Seamless seek to capitalize on this strong revenue stream as it provides a means to stay viable in a competitive economy and the potential to reach other generational groups.
Despite being a lucrative target, well-educated young adults, part of the broader marketing group Generation X, are very difficult to court because of their disbelief and resistance towards advertisements and consumerism in general. Having grown up in an age when consumption is understood as a way of life and television is a major source of information, these individuals have learned the tricks of the advertising trade and have become wary of companies’ ulterior motives. “They have been consuming media since they were born, and they are experts at it. It is almost impossible to fool them and they do not like to hype or succumb to it…They’ve seen through our little strategies and they know who pays our bills. They relish the fact that unlike previous generations, they recognize advertising for what it is—a grub-by sales pitch” (Leiss 471). Consumer culture attaches values and narratives to commodities that they do not intrinsically have, giving shoppers another reason to buy the items beyond their practicality (Marx 321). To differentiate themselves from other comparable products, brands constantly borrow messages commonplace in other contexts of society that enable brands to align themselves with associations already in circulation. For example, Seamless posted to its Facebook page an advertisement of a large piece of sushi being held up by two chopsticks reading “You know what they say about really big sushi…really big chopsticks”. The text alludes to the commonly used phrase “You know what they say about men with big feet…big socks”. By copying the formula of a well-known expression, Seamless helps the reader recognize the connection and therefore appreciate the joke. However, this “seemingly endless process of cannibalizing and lifting isolated images from previous media references and reassembling them in pastiche form” has caused a cultural crisis as the world became littered with superficial meanings that are too vague and oblique to be understood by consumers (Goldman and Papson 93). In addition, Generation X believes that advertisers are manipulative by instilling false needs that individuals do not actually have or want just to make money. Disgruntled by the system’s empty phrases and lack of concern for the consumer, the media-literate and media-saturated professionals adopted an “I’m over it; It is not going to work on me” attitude towards blatant promotional appeals. These alienated spectators are rightfully skeptical of consumerism and lack a connection with advertising, prompting Seamless and other brands to search for different message tactics to prove their trustworthiness to the public while still distinguishing themselves from competitors within the cluttered marketplace.
Although services including Seamless recognize their target audience’s distrust of advertisements, they cannot completely turn away from consumption as it is the hegemonic ideology that pays their bills. Accordingly, Seamless has employed a form of hip consumerism, “Anti-advertising: a style which harnesses public mistrust of consumerism”, that recognizes the alienation and disgust people are feeling without rejecting the cultural order all together (Frank, “Cultural Criticism” 55). It channels the critique to encourage consumers to continue consuming despite being aware of all the contradictions the social system perpetuates. Within the framework that consumption can solve all maladies, the young professionals are asked to use commodities as an apparatus through which they implement the societal and political change they wish to see. To achieve this goal of “dissenting without subverting or questioning the cultural faiths of Western business”, Seamless applies humor to the cynicism found in their advertisements as a way to answer Generation X’s cry to be hailed differently than they have been historically (Frank, “Can’t Dissent” 44).
Comedy is a technique often exercised to promote disposable products, especially in the over-saturated food and drink industry. Since many edibles do not differ much qualitatively from their competitors, it produces another reason to support a particular brand by appealing to the mindset of the targeted spectator. “In the hotly competitive advertising industry, advertisers struggle to differentiate their images…joining the meaning of a brand-name product to the meaning of a socially charged image” (Goldman and Papson 82). Grubhub and Delivery.com offer the same digital convenience as Seamless, but because Seamless engages its audience through its great sense of humor, consumers may be more inclined to use the site over the other “boring” choices. As a result, the humor becomes the selling point, placing the actual commodity on the back burner. In many cases, reference to the product may be completely absent from the advertisement as in a picture Seamless posted on its Facebook page of the new definition of girlfriend. Seamless’ logo is nowhere to be found and no mention is made of the food delivery service, allowing the advertisement to be associated with essentially any company if the context is not considered. “This decentering of the product is perhaps the most common way of presenting the brand in the Gen X as, for it is non-obtrusive and complimentary to its audience, addressing the new consumer’s desire for less hucksterism and a more useful, tasteful, and targeted promotional strategy” (Leiss 489). Young adult consumers feel less threatened by the brand as its motives appear more sincere and less commercially charged on the surface. Seamless’ employment of humor diverts the media-literate’s attention away from detecting the cultural contradictions that may be lurking within their campaign toward the feelings of authenticity and intellectuality, both highly regarded by the group, that typically arise from this technique.
As a generation that is deemed to have been “baby-sat” by television, it is no wonder that young professionals respond positively to advertisements that amuse them (Leiss 471). Highly attuned to entertainment and popular culture, they are familiar with the puffery that is in circulation and distrust it. Longing for authenticity, they seek refuge in humor and straight talk, the powerful tools they implement to communicate with their friends. Therefore, advertisers tap into this avenue acting as consumers’ confidantes to regain this group’s trust. As in the “One Flaw” advertisement, Seamless’ Sir Pancake Benedict speaks to viewers in their own words by dramatically enacting a review posted by a real user on their website. If the brand can successfully channel the values praised by the group, the brand is believed to have deserved their loyalty. “Entertaining presentations, then, produced on the Xers own terms, proved to be the olive branch marketers needed to gain legitimacy. According to one youth marketer, ‘Xers are willing to strike a pact with us, and that pact is, if creatives humor and entertain the Gen X viewer then they will stay, watch, and even actively engage with the ad” (Leiss 482).
Seamless speaks to the audience as comrades by poking fun at current cultural events, which helps it gain authenticity and their trust. In general, friends are believed to be less likely to take advantage of friends. By “talking with” as opposed to “talking at” the audience, Seamless seems less likely to pursue the selfish manipulation expected of businesses in America. To remain in conversation with the media-savvy, Seamless’ advertising must “draw upon audiences’ stocked knowledge of popular codes to present visual puns” (Leiss 483). For example, the digital service capitalizes on memes and viral videos to appeal to these alienated spectators. By identifying Seamless’ reference to Sweet Brown and other social media phenomena, the media-savvy youths are expected mentally say to themselves, “Hey, remember that funny song on Youtube ‘Ain’t nobody got time for that’ your friend showed you the other day? Seamless watched it too. It gets us, so you should check the company out because it is one of us.” Combating the pervasive portrayal of businesses being solely money-hungry powerhouses, Seamless attempts to gain the young professionals’ trust by positioning itself through humor as “…not an oppressor but a sponsor of fun, provider of lifestyle accoutrements, facilitator of carnival, our slang speaking partner in the quest for that ever-more apocalyptic orgasm” (Frank, “Can’t Dissent” 34).
In the same vein, Seamless draws on humor to cleverly appeal to the intellect of the well-educated professionals. More so than other generational groups, the young adult consumers living in urban areas have “higher levels of education, wider access to cultural institutions, and higher income” on average (Leiss 519-520). Therefore, they appreciate when advertisers acknowledge that they are too smart to fall into the traditional trappings of commercialism. Seamless addresses the audience as a smart consumers by requiring the reader to piece together the cultural clues on their own in order to understand the joke. By not spelling out the punchline, advertisers are gaining their respect and attention since, “Self generated resolution to the ambiguity and incongruity of the message may enhance favorable brand attitudes, because in solving the symbolic puzzle, the subject is able to congratulate himself on his astuteness” (Leiss 503-504). Seamless’ Watergate ad attempts to appeal to an educated consumer with this historical reference. To be “in” on the pun demands the reader to possess a working knowledge of the political scandal involving Richard Nixon in the 1970s. “They are able to comprehend and find pleasure in texts complicated by ironic, cynical, double meanings and intertextuality…” (Leiss 517). The alienated spectators value companies that do not treat them as mindless clones who are just another cog in Corporate America’s machine.
Through humor, Seamless seeks to have its cake and eat it too while targeting the most influential, but simultaneously the most jaded audience. Urban, young professionals possess a substantial amount of disposable income that lures advertisers to them. However, due to their proficiency in the inner workings of consumerism, they are immune to the conventional advertising tactics of consumer opulence. To engage these alienated individuals, Seamless “speaks to them in their language and on their own terms…” by satisfying their desire to be entertained and hailed as cultural critic (Goldman and Papson 91).
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