If you’re not looking for it, you may never see one red laser dot trained on your brand, but of course, you would notice 10 million of those dots. By then, though, it’s likely too late to avoid harm from an orchestrated, grassroots attempt to take down your brand.
Who could rally the sheer numbers of supporters needed to generate millions of pieces of negative chatter aimed at your brand? Surely it would have to be a massive troll farm with a keyboard army subsidized by an unfriendly foreign government.
Or it could be 13 guys working out of a musty warehouse in Brooklyn's trendy Williamsburg neighborhood.
Meet MSCHF (pronounced like mischief), a self-described collective of culture hackers behind a number of cynical viral campaigns and bizarre products, ranging from toaster-shaped bath bombs to Holy Water-filled sneakers.
The group made headlines when it launched an effort targeting nine big companies it deems evil. The cartoonish, dizzying “Anti Ad Ad Club” website, which went live on October 12, explains the what and the why of the project in four words: “Kill Brands. Get Paid.”
The goal of MSCHF is to publicly disparage the chosen brands by enlisting volunteers to create demeaning videos on TikTok, with hopes that some would go viral. It’s a simple, asymmetrical attack designed to mock and awe. As the manifesto on the Anti Ad Ad Club website declares, “If we cannot become paid shills for brands, we can at least attack them in unison.”
MSCHF offered TikTok users the chance to make anywhere from $10 to $20,000 to post public takedowns of big companies to which the group has taken a disliking. They made it distressingly easy by feeding catchy, satirical music clips—the cornerstone of TikTok—to participants.
Anti Ad Ad Club kindly supplied TikTok users with nine parodies of pop songs, each tied to one of the targeted brands. For example, for U.S.-based fast fashion retailer Fashion Nova, the audio track was Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” rewritten with the mocking lyrics: “We didn’t pay designers. We just stole the dresses and took all the credit.”
The battle plan was spelled out on the site: “Attack TikTok for content suppression. Attack Fashion Nova for stealing designs and using sweatshops. Attack Amazon for human rights violations and union busting. Attack the NFL for disregarding player safety. Attack Tesla for employee health negligence and union busting.
“Attack Comcast for...just sucking. Attack Facebook for proliferating hate speech and fake news. Attack Purdue Pharma for opioid crisis profiteering. Attack Palantir for big data for evil and being The Name Cops Trust.”
The bounties were listed: $10 for more than 5,000 views of your video attacking TikTok. $50 for 25,000+ views of your Fashion Nova slam. $100 for 50,000 views of your Amazon bash. $200 for 100,000 views of your NFL sack. $1,000 for 500,000 views of your Tesla taunt.
$2,000 for more than one million views of your Comcast skewer. $4,000 for more than two million views of your Facebook barb. $10,000 for more than five million views of your Purdue roast. $20,000 (a one-time reward) for 10 million views of your Palantir put-down.
BRAND ATTACKS DRIVEN BY A DISSIDENT OUTLOOK AND VENTURE CAPITAL
All of this brings up a number of questions on this latest threat to brands. Who’s behind this? Why do they do it? How do they pay for it?
MSCHF has been variously described as an art collective, a nontraditional ad shop, a social experiment, and a media startup. Once upon a time, the group created campaigns for brands such as Casper and Target, but they decided to "go all in on our own stuff" in September 2019.
They call themselves outsiders and rule-breakers, and now calls MSCHF an “attention and fame machine.” That machine has attracted other misfits burdened by Millennial and Gen Z angst.
At any given time, the enigmatic group employs 10 to 15 artists, programmers, designers, fabricators, and other "good internet people," mostly 20-somethings, and largely random acquaintances of the MSCHF executives.
They’re not happy with politicians, governments, Big Tech, Big Pharma, Big Media—big anything. They see enterprises as focused only on their own interests and bottom lines, not people or climate or happiness. Explaining the anti-capitalist message behind the Anti Ad Ad Club, they told The Verge, “We had our team [do some] digging on them, and found nine that had some form of dirt we didn’t like and wanted to bring to light more.”
More was described to Business Insider, "Our perspective is everything is funny in a nihilistic sort of way. We're not here to make the world a better place. We're making light of how much everything sucks."
To the masters of sociological dysfunction at MSCHF, getting attention is the only thing that matters—whether it’s negative or not. That brash attitude brushes up against the legal line at times, bringing cease and desist letters from companies that don’t share their sense of whimsy.
Some venture capitalists, however, see something in the structured chaos at MSCHF. The group has closed two rounds of funding from investors totaling $11.5 million, according to the PitchBook funding database. That’s on top of what they take in from their limited-edition products that tend to blow up online, such as their Jesus Shoes, customized Nike Air Maxes that sold out instantly at $3,000 a pair.
BE CONCERNED ABOUT ANTI-CORPORATE ACTIVISM ON SOCIAL MEDIA
MSCHF is just the latest in a long history of guerilla-style, anti-corporate activism going back to the 1970s that employ what has come to be known as subvertising and culture jamming.
Groups such as Subvertisers International, Special Patrol Group, and Brandalism are united against what they see as the negative effect of a culture of consumerism on people and the planet, but they have different ideas on how to disrupt consumer culture.
Since 2012, Brandalism has been calling out big companies by parodying brand campaigns and subverting brand advertising in the analog world. They do it with covert poster installations or artwork in public places covering existing ads to “encourage passers-by to consider what a brand says and what it does as two different things,” wrote Imogen Watson in The Drum.
An increasing shift to online advertising and engagement has given us the new activism of MSCHF and whoever else is out there. They know that one person’s social media post doesn’t count for much. But a million posts or tens of millions of posts are going to get someone’s attention in the C-suite.
Every enterprise should be concerned about groups leveraging these content creators to create movements against their brand. Audacious groups like MSCHF make it easy for anyone to be an activist from the comfort of home, and they know how to leverage the power of coordinated action.
Just because MSCHF is hiding in plain sight doesn’t mean that it’s a simple matter of monitoring your social media pages and social advertising campaigns to protect them from a malicious agenda. Protecting your brand from harmful content and bad actors who are intent on disrupting consumer engagement needs a comprehensive solution that not only eliminates this harmful content but also identifies and blocks the individuals behind it before the incident goes mainstream.
The Anti Ad Ad Club ran for just five days and paid out $50,000 to people for sponsored takedowns. The next MSCHF project drops the last week of October.
We don’t know if it will be another act of anti-corporate activism or if it will be another offbeat product such as Puff the Squeaky Chicken, a rubber chicken bong. The line of continuity in the previous 31 projects is undetectable to outsiders. As far as MSCHF is concerned, if they can get the resources to launch something, nothing and no one is safe.