TikTok began with the simplest expressions of joy: dancing, lip-syncing and the power of music. These are among the earliest ways humans learnt, copied and communicated, and they’re now appearing in new forms in the digital world. The communality of TikTok builds this joy, in the endless recreating of the routines that others are performing – it’s the thrill of being part of a trend, something bigger than yourself.
Against the recent backdrop of isolation and devastating news cycles, TikTok has become a place to express joy, and to experience the connection and unity of expressing it with others. Plus joy is infectious, proven to spread from person to person in a way that unhappiness doesn’t. Think of the endless Duetting, Stitching and Trending sounds of TikTok. Where other platforms fuel anger, jealousy and status anxiety, TikTok serves up entertainment – with 73% of people on TikTok’s saying they felt happier after logging on (1).
As TikTok grows, it embraces comedic skits, camera tricks, magic acts, epic stunts, rap battles, intimate personal stories and humorous cultural commentary. What connects them is that creators felt that they couldn’t really be themselves anywhere else – until they found TikTok. In fact, three quarters of TikTok users say they feel comfortable expressing themselves on the platform.
Nothing is more real than joy
On TikTok, as in real life, joy cannot be faked or performed. That’s not to say everyone on TikTok is perfectly happy at all times; they also share their vulnerability and fragility.
The comments on TikTok are more likely to reveal the warmer side of anonymous digital humanity – to be supportive, encouraging and funny. Comments are a huge part of TikTok – users will often say, “I scrolled directly to the comments”, and commentators will also call out those who choose to be unkind. Being able to release content that will be embraced instead of judged is one key to unlocking the joy at the heart of TikTok.
Be authentic, not perfect
In an age where authenticity has come to mean gritty realism or emotional over-exposure, TikTok has embraced the fantasy of escapism, the silliness of the unexpected and the desire to laugh at even the worst moments. We see grandmothers shuffling into bikini shots, strangers joining in dances, pets jumping on the sofa and people falling over. These un-airbrushed expressions of authenticity create intimacy and stifle shame, which is the inhibitor of joy. Authenticity on TikTok welcomes a fuller version of life, where good and bad moments can co-exist, dispensing with the claustrophobia of perfectionism.
One of TikTok’s USPs is that its audio framework enhances this self-expression: a story you perhaps wouldn’t tell because it feels too sombre finds its punchline in a contrasting audio track. Even the tragedies of break-up or bereavement can be transmuted into humour and self-knowledge on TikTok. Millions of views and thousands of comments affirm that other people have “been there, done that” (as Pitbull puts it in another viral TikTok trend), offering a shared interpretation of joy.
Brands can fill the joy gap
For brands to embrace joy may sound strange, even frivolous. But for brands seeking to engage emotionally and influence culture, turning to the lighter side of life provides a new path forward.
Pandemic advertising extolled the heroes of the fight against the virus, and brands shifted to a more serious, sober tone to capture the prevailing mood. But on TikTok, even the nurses were dancing – perhaps because, rather than in spite of, the circumstances. In uncertain times, joy becomes more important, not less.
Marketers know that emotion drives creative effectiveness, with 55% of IPA-winning campaigns citing emotion as their main creative strategy. And one of the strongest emotional drivers of all is joy. In the age of TikTok there is a place for joy on a business plan, as a communications objective and a measurable effect. With a meaningful transfer from positive content to a positive brand impression, joy can unlock long-term brand building, brand preference and sales.
Old-school advertising understood that its purpose was to entertain, not dictate, hence the much repeated TV adage that “the ads used to be better than the programmes”. Brands need to look within to discover the delightful parts of their product, and bring forth that joy to find success on TikTok.
1. TikTok Marketing Science Understanding Authenticity, Happiness and Joy in Germany, France, Italy, Spain and the UK, conducted by Flamingo Group.
2. TikTok Marketing Science US Authenticity study 2020, conducted by Nielsen