Charli D’Amelio is known for her dance videos. She sways to songs like “Lottery (Renegade)” and “Cardigan.” But her recent TikTok didn’t feature a trending pop remix. Instead, the song features lyrics like, “I’ve got a big ole glass of milk.” D’Amelio begins the video sipping on the beverage before setting her glass aside and starting her dance.
The ad was paid for by Gonna Need Milk, which is the marketing campaign of the Milk Processor Education Program (MilkPEP). Its goals are simple: “increase dairy milk awareness and drive milk consumption.” And they aren’t just working with D’Amelio to do so. Last year, MilkPEP sponsored Twitchcon. This year, it had a booth at the annual content creator convention VidCon for attendees to play its “Fortnite” game.
MilkPEP isn’t the only dairy company trying to sway young people. The California Milk Advisory Board’s recent retail campaign tried to use influencers like food TikTokers Ryan Turley and Ale Regalado to encourage people to buy California dairy products. And National Dairy Checkoff partners with YouTuber Mr. Beast, who plays with cows in Minecraft.
It’s clear why Big Dairy is trying to court Gen Z. Last year, that demographic bought 20% less milk than the national average. In the U.K., one study found that about 49% of Gen Z consumers were “ashamed” to order dairy milk in public. Instead, young people are turning to plant-based alternatives, like oat milk and almond milk.
Enter influencer partnerships. A 2020 study from researcher Kantar found that 44% of Gen Z bases its purchasing decisions on influencer recommendations. A more recent report from the International Council of Shopping Centers suggests that 85% of Gen Z respondents are guided by influencers when they shop.
But Big Milk isn’t the only industry tapping influencers to help revitalize its image. Oil companies—which young people largely oppose—BP, Shell, and ExxonMobil are also turning to influencers to “win the trust of the younger generation.” Most recently, social media stars Nora Capistrano Sangalang and Brooke Scheurn highlighted how much money they save through Shell and ExxonMobil’s fuel rewards programs.
This isn’t a new phenomenon. In 2018, ExxonMobil’s YouTube campaign reached over one million viewers. Shell was funding influencer marketing campaigns, which featured creators stopping at Shell gas stations on road trips, back in 2021. But influencer marketing has exploded since then, meaning it’s easier than ever to find a creator willing to take a check. Through social media, these companies are trying to change young people’s negative perceptions. If they focus more on saving money at Dunkin through a Shell rewards card, as one video suggests, they might be willing to overlook the companies breaking promises to curb fossil fuel production.
Even companies that are largely favorable to Gen Z will use influencers for reputation management. That was the goal when Shein flew out influencers to tour one of its factories earlier this summer amidst a Morning Consulting survey that found that at least 7% of Gen Z shoppers decided not to buy from Shein over concerns about its labor issues and environmental concerns. That video, however, garnered severe backlash, indicating that the ploy to regain consumer’s trust via influencers doesn’t always work.
Which is to say, influencers who work with these companies do run the risk of alienating their audience who might be staunchly anti-fossil fuel. The influencers who worked with fossil fuel companies have received negative responses from their fans, and some people have made fun of D’Amelio’s half-hearted attempt to promote milk.
That said, D’Amelio’s own comment section is full of people who were just happy to see her dancing on TikTok again. But would they feel the same way if she suddenly appeared in a paid promotion with ExxonMobil? It’s too soon to tell.
What do you think of Big Milk and Big Oil’s efforts to court Gen Z? Email [email protected] to share your thoughts.