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April 28, 2023

Say Bye Bye to TikTok

Mason Ahrens

Say Bye Bye to TikTok article.

Regulators are saying there’s a 90% chance TikTok will be banned in the United States. What can we learn from how advertisers used the medium, and where they can go with that information in the future?

TikTok Ads—Were there any good ones? 

Ahh TikTok. Why go out and explore this beautiful world and what it has to offer when instead you can lie on your couch for three hours and watch slightly altered renditions of dances to a sped-up pop song? Well, you might have to get off that couch here soon, as TikTok finds itself under threat of permanent ban from the United States government. 

An app of immense viewership is on its deathbed. And as is tradition, a deathbed is a place to reflect and reminisce. What can we, as advertisers, learn from TikTok in retrospect? Which ads worked? Which ads were so horrible people actually set down the most addictive app out there just to cleanse their mental palette? 

First, let’s look at what TikTok is (or “was,” depending on when you read this article). A wildly successful platform with users in the billions, with at least 2 in 5 users part of the Gen Z demographic, though it’s important to note that the other three are a healthy mix of Millenial, Gen X, and even Boomer. A highly advanced algorithm that’s not based on “likes,” but time spent on a video. And even if you have zero followers, your video is always seen by at least one person—if they like it, the video will be spread to more and more people and could result in millions of views within a matter of days. 

In my personal experience, the paid ads were never… well never that effective. Half were YouTube pre-rolls just transferred over. Awkward aspect ratios aside, these pre-rolls can find success on YouTube because I as a viewer cannot skip. On TikTok, the moment I see that someone’s trying to sell me something, I’m out of there faster than a sinner at eucharist. The standard Cable-TV model doesn’t work, since I’m not forced to sit there and soak up all the lovely information about your lovely product. 

Some brands have recognized this. One brand achieved a Click Through Rate that was 39% above the benchmark and grew its following by 1,400%. This champion amongst TikTok advertisers is Duolingo. And their method is simple: Be a TikTok account. Whatever TikTok trend was going on, you could bet your bottom dollar that that big green bird would be participating. No meme was safe, and no trend was left untrended. Of course, all of this content was spun with the hope of gaining app installations, so the content was altered to fit the general message of “learning a language is easy with Duolingo.” 

And Duolingo recognized how the organic posts are kings of TikTok. If it’s good enough, your video will always be seen, and people will see them with their “entertainment” brain turned on, and not their “oh God it’s another ad” brain. This is an important distinction. No matter how high quality an ad can be, there is a part of me as a consumer that is simply annoyed by their existence. I want to watch Battlestar Galactica, not stock footage of people running through a field while a fast voice describes the side effects of taking their liver medication. 

Another key to their campaign’s success was the quick turnaround. Trends and jokes burn quickly, and there’s not enough fuel for a brand to jump on something even a week late. It comes off as inauthentic pandering, and these brands will be subject to endless “Fellow Kids” memes, in effect achieving the exact opposite of what was intended. The onus falls on both agency and client to produce and approve content quickly, but the results speak for themselves. 

But what’s the lesson at the end of this? When TikTok is routed from our phones with the power of Democracy, and a Silicon Valley up-and-comer takes its place, what can we learn to be better prepared for the next big app?


Maybe it’s a little trite, but it’s so often underutilized, especially when it comes to social advertising. The most effective advertising knows its medium and utilizes it properly for the best result. Now, I get it. “Mason, this is an old idea,” or “Mason, why are you telling us something we already know?” I get it, dear reader, but so often this wisdom is lost when the creative rubber hits the road of execution. Strange metaphors aside, so much advertising is created with a “one size fits all” mentality, that if it works on TV, it’ll work on Snapchat. And sure, you can port over a video, and it will serve as an ad. But will it be an ad worth clicking? Would I, in my customer hat, take the time to not skip something that is clearly not meant for the medium it resides in? Absolutely not. 

Tailor your message for the way you spread it. There you will find creative solutions that are unique, memorable, and most importantly, effective advertisements. And that right there is what dreams are made of, kids.

Well, at least my dreams.