At the Consumer Culture Lab at IIM Udaipur (IIMU) every year, one major research project is taken up. This year, the lab is exploring social media content creators from small-town India in a project it has called “Digital Heartland of India”. According to Tanvi Gupta, Assistant Professor of Marketing at IIMU, an interesting theme that has emerged in the course of their fieldwork is “cringe content”. She explains how most creators they spoke with discussed apprehensions about their content being seen as “cringe”.

“When we probed them further on what they classify as cringe, they said cringe is gimmicky content which does not involve original creativity of the creator,” says Gupta. Fascinated by this, the lab is now engaged in probing different aspects of “cringe” deeper.

The rise of cringe

Cringe content in the space of internet subculture has been variously defined as cheap comedy, or awkward posts that cause secondhand embarrassment. People deliberately post self-humiliating content, embracing their imperfections — bad singing, terrible dancing and so on. But now that cringe content has blown up explosively, and has gone mainstream with the entertainment industry lapping it up, should brands be part of it or not? Look at how many views Dhinchak Pooja gets for her cringe pop. It’s certainly tempting for brands to get associated.

Nature of cringe

Brand management expert Sanjay Sarma, Founder of SSarma Consults explains, there are two types of cringe content. One is deliberate, where the motive is to somehow go viral with something controversial. Creators are aware that there would be extreme opinions and their work will be dissected and debated. “Audiences usually don’t love them, but watch it for FOMO and end up with negative emotions,” he says.

The other kind of cringe are the ones that are so bad, they are good. “Taher Shah is a classic example. People wait for his cringe music videos, share it, make memes, have a good laugh, and make him popular. He is a cringe legend,” says Sarma.

According to Laalit Lobo, VP Marketing, Bombay Shaving Co, “So called cringe/crass content has always been part of mass culture. Sexist and double meaning jokes have been part of regional theatre, music and cinema. So this is not a new phenomenon. What is new is that so-called elite city audiences are now consuming this.”

Tanvi Gupta of IIMU has an explanation for this. She says cringe is something that simultaneously makes you feel disgust and pleasure. While the disgust is something you express publicly, because it reflects your “superior” taste in culture, the pleasure is hidden. “There will always be place for cringe content in social media and people will continue watching it and sharing it because it would make them feel “schadenfreude”. In the context of metro vs small-town content, the “rustic” vernacular content is cringe, yet highly romanticised, as it signifies the “authenticity” of our desi-ness (Indian-ness). The creator is not trying to create a fake sense of perfection.”

A trap for brands

Cringe culture is certainly an interesting space. But as the recent controversial deo ad by Layer’r Shot which got into trouble for its sexist and offensive content shows, it can be a highly problematic space too.

Naresh Gupta, Co-Founder and Managing Partner, Bang in the Middle, says cringe or work that comes from the bottom of the popular culture funnel, is becoming mainstream because of the context we live in. “Our news channels are not really the best places where the sanctity of language is maintained, our newspapers are often riddled with headlines that should not have been written, where the jokes created for political rally are ‘made’ into mainline monikers, so brands find it easier to go the cheapest way.”

He lays the blame on brand managers, who refuse to take the harder long term path and fall for the easier way of doing cheap comedy. “While we may be cringing at the deo ad, sometime back a cement brand was selling by showcasing a woman in swimsuit. There was no connection.”

Gupta also says there are too many ‘sin’ brands on mass media. “Paan masala, liquor, have to find different ways to connect and they, in their struggle create content that is so putrid you are left with a lingering bad taste.”

He says, “The trouble is that cringe is easy to make, and easier to forget, so that 30 second fame the brand chases, happens.”

Although the reach and engagement of such content is high, Laalit Lobo feels no smart brand manager would associate with cringe content.