Corporations have some strong pivot skills. One by one, they hopped on board the we’re-all-in-this-pandemic-together bandwagon. You’ve seen the commercials I’m sure. From CarMax to Burger King to Budweiser—and even Charmin—advertisers have adjusted their messaging to show how much they care about our unprecedented predicament and are oh so very eager to help in our distress.
You can get all this support for just one low, low price!
And our cynicism grows. Because, of course, much of this marketing smacks of opportunism, corporations taking advantage of the crisis and our lowered defenses to move their products. C. J. Faison is all of us when he asks on Twitter where this concern was just two months ago:
Airlines sending me emails: “We are all in this together…”
Uhhh where were y’all at when my suitcase weighed 51.9 lbs
— CJ Faison (@cjfaison) April 22, 2020
Watching this scenario play out feeds our suspicion, maybe even a little more than usual. Yes, we know that corporations see us simply as consumers, economic means to a pecuniary end, but now—as we shelter in place, watch the death toll rise with no vaccine or treatment in sight, and wonder how our lives will change yet more before the virus is contained—we keenly feel the gap between advertisers’ perception of us and our existential, all-too-human reality.Steak-umm has dramatically subverted our expectations of advertisers’ behavior, winsomely reminding us of our interconnections and shared humanity in an environment that thrives only by desensitizing us to that reality.
For many of us, COVID-19 has disrupted our sense of security and pierced the façade of autonomy we often labor under. We are daily reminded that our lives and our physical and emotional health are inevitably bound up in what happens across the world, across the country, across town. That renewed awareness is what lies behind the trends we’ve seen on social media to support and encourage one another. When done well, it’s a beautiful thing to witness—neighbors caring for virtual neighbors far and wide.
But at a time when genuine solidarity is much needed, faux camaraderie is frankly insufferable. Advertisements that play on our frayed nerves feel parasitical to the community we all need right now.
Enter the Steak-umm Twitter account. Yes, Steak-umm. Through its social media presence, the company has become an unexpected source of social support precisely when we need it most.
On March 16, the week Americans began self-isolating in earnest, Steak-umm dropped its first coronavirus thread:
in these chaotic times:
1) be cautious of misinformation
2) listen for updates/advice from credible sources
3) take care of yourselves
4) look after your loved ones
5) be considerate of strangers
denial and division only lead to worse outcomes. it's time to come together
— Steak-umm (@steak_umm) March 16, 2020
Anticipating the onslaught of conspiracy theories that now threaten to drown our Facebook and Twitter feeds, the personified frozen beef patty gave some solid advice for navigating the pandemic landscape. The account reminded us of the need for credible sources and pointed us to several, it challenged us to speak the truth in love when we encounter misinformation, and it reiterated best health practices promoted by the World Health Organization. In short, it managed to cut through the artificiality of the corporate world and offer us something of real value: sympathy, understanding, guidance, and exhortation.
Since then, the account has continued with this service-oriented approach: boosting the voices of experts, supporting the Feeding America charity, offering a précis on critical thinking, articulating the draw of conspiratorial thinking (along with tips for encouraging friends and family away from it), and challenging us to check in on and love our neighbors.
Yes, as the account is quick to point out, its primary goal is to sell the Steak-umm product. But in a refreshing change from the typical order of things, their current sales method dovetails nicely with a broader vision for human flourishing, one that strives for cooperation not competition. And, counterintuitively enough, that communal approach has ricocheted to their economic success by boosting sales—suggesting that there might be more room for win-win situations in the business world. Steak-umm’s intended readers are envisioned as more than frozen beef patty eaters. They are human beings with genuine needs for community, for purpose, for health, for recreation.
These Steak-umm tweets are aimed at an audience who can reason and create, support one another and solve problems. In fact, it’s that respect for our humanity that resonates with readers who have been pleasantly surprised by the good advice and well wishes emanating from the account. In this way, Nathan Allebach, the person behind the account, has provided a reprieve, if only brief, from the onslaught of dehumanizing attitudes and practices so prevalent in our consumer-driven society, which ties a person’s value directly to her income and consumption alone.
These transactional habits of mind are insidious, ingrained in our daily interactions at work and in the marketplace, embedded in our political and educational systems, even infiltrating the church. Besides being an emaciated view of what a human being is, they also foster emotionally unhealthy conditions.
In his trenchant critique detailing how this spirit of consumerism has dominated American culture, Philip Slater indicts corporations and consumers alike in perpetuating a dysfunctional system. His 1970 Pursuit of Loneliness argues that our participation in this system deeply frustrates the essential human needs of community with others, engagement with our environment, and mutual interdependence. Insofar as we assent to the idea that we are reducible to what we make and what we buy and that we must compete with our fellow man for our piece of the pie, we find it increasingly difficult to build friendships and develop trust, to accept our limits, or to reach out for help.
That’s why the Steak-umm Twitter activity has been a gift, especially during the pandemic. Allebach has dramatically subverted our expectations of advertisers’ behavior, winsomely reminding us of our interconnections and shared humanity in an environment that thrives only by desensitizing us to that reality.
Of course the Steak-umm account is not the solution to what ails us. At the core of our being, we long for love and service, fellowship and collaboration, communication and support. We are symbiotic creatures who come fully alive only in community. We need authentic relationships, not simply a human-esque voice that feels like someone we know, which is how Allebach described the Steak-umm account.
A few of Steak-umm’s tweets suggest that he is aware of the danger inherent to the account’s subversive messaging—that it might awaken folks to the need for community but also subtly promise to provide that community. Which naturally it cannot, given the barriers of technology and human limitations. (Even still, I think Steak-umm’s equation of their messaging with propaganda and misdirection is not altogether right and unfortunately blurs the line between transparent, benign forms of persuasion and manipulative, treacherous ones, but that’s a critique for another day.)
At its best, however, the Steak-umm’s Twitter account targets our individualistic, consumer-centric thinking and challenges us to resist competitive, selfish attitudes and behaviors. Irreverent as the comparison may sound, these are kingdom values at root, and they echo Paul’s mandate in Romans 15:2: “Each of us should please our neighbors for their good, to build them up.” On the logic of the market this charge makes no sense, but in God’s economy, it allows us freedom to be who he made us to be and to shed our pretensions to autonomy and control. Importantly, it allows—and expects—us to treat others as the image bearers they are. The prophetic voice of that message may be a personified frozen beef patty, but its truth is vital just the same.