The Cheekiness of Corporate Voices

A Cadbury Plant Bar package showing a supposed tweet against “vegan treats.” The packaging was part of a 2022 campaign by the company promoting its vegan chocolate bar. Courtesy Trimton, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported



Nike Run Club got weird this week. I use the app to measure my speed and distance on runs and have always left the volume on my phone off because the voices of its encouragement sound corporate and insincere.

Wow! Great job,” a faceless trainer-actor will say aloud, if I let him, after some mediocre jog I had to do in intervals because my legs felt like sandbags. “Way to go! You’re doing awesome!”

But in the last few days, I have been getting something new from the app: screen notifications each afternoon that sound more personal and which serve as reminders that NRC has been watching and recording my habits for the last four years.

“Look like it’s time to run,” the messages say presumptuously. “Are we running today?”

What business is it of yours if we are running today, Friendo?

When I got busy this month and stopped doing daily language lessons on Duolingo, its emails started by nagging (“Don’t lose your streak!”; “Keep your streak going!”), got more judgmental (“Duo missed you yesterday”; “Get back on track!”), and ended with peevish disappointment (“Looks like there’s no progress to report. We’ll stop sending these weekly progress emails for now”). If I wanted my devices to judge me I would have my refrigerator remark on my attempts to clean its vegetable drawer.

I think the first corporate business I encountered with a cheeky attitude was Ed Debevic’s (“50s Chicago Diner with Snarky Servers”), followed by Dick’s Last Resort, another restaurant in Chicago, then near Navy Pier. Someone around that time seems to have decided that servers’ bad attitude was an antidote to corporate blandness, or maybe the movement coordinated with the push in the ’80s for more rights for corporate personhood: I think intrusively and aggressively, therefore I am.

With social media, corporate marketers began to cast aside conservative caution as a way of fitting in to the always-possibly-hostile digital environment, as when an employee of Wendy’s corporate media team got massive free publicity for the company in 2017 by being snarky to trolls.

(On the positive side, the unofficial “resistance” teams of government agencies in the Trump era—@AltNatParkSer, @altUSEPA, @Alt_NASA, @AltForestServ, @RogueNASA—slung attitude pretty hard for the common good on social media, but that still seems odd to me for a for-profit company. Any company taking a position that might alienate consumers used to seem unthinkable as a conscious plan by management.)

Artificial intelligence will take this light-years further, as it tries to hide that it is not human. The cheeky comes from us.

John Griswold

John Griswold is a staff writer at The Common Reader. His most recent book is a collection of essays, The Age of Clear Profit: Essays on Home and the Narrow Road (UGA Press 2022). His previous collection was Pirates You Don’t Know, and Other Adventures in the Examined Life. He has also published a novel, A Democracy of Ghosts, and a narrative nonfiction book, Herrin: The Brief History of an Infamous American City. He was the founding Series Editor of Crux, a literary nonfiction book series at University of Georgia Press. His work has been included and listed as notable in Best American anthologies.