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Beauty Brands Eye TikTok Bans, Gen Z Reacts With Eye Roll

The bans of the Chinese company's popular platform in many Southern, conservative states could have a marginal impact on product marketing and plenty of unintended consequences.

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When the 117th Congress last December passed a gigantic, $1.7 trillion spending bill that included banning TikTok from all government devices, the popular video-sharing app’s core Gen Z users shrugged. A month later, as a growing list of universities, under pressure from state lawmakers, have also banned the app, they’re starting to notice.

And so are the beauty brands that have increasingly relied on TikTok — which has sparked countless beauty trends and viral products (Clinique’s Black Honey, Dior’s Rosy Glow Blush, to name just two) — as a critical marketing tool.

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“Our core principle is reach people where they are,” says Evan Horowitz, CEO and cofounder of creative agency Movers+Shakers, which works closely with brands like E.l.f.. “And right now, they’re on TikTok.”

Indeed, TikTok is used by 67 percent of American teens, according to the Pew Research Center, second only to YouTube (95 percent). And a majority of users are on the app every day, for more than an hour each day, while 60 percent are female. With 30 percent of Gen Z using the app for product research, according to Statista, TikTok is increasingly supplanting Google as the go-to search destination for young people, who look to content creator clips to discover trending products. In fact, 46 of the 100 most viral products on TikTok last year were beauty products, according to marketing agency Ubiquitous.

The recent bans have not exactly disrupted access to the app for a generation that has made TikTok the fastest growing social platform ever, with more than 100 million active users since its entrée into the U.S. market. If anything, the colleges and universities which have used TikTok to promote sports teams and other aspects of campus life have been more affected by the bans than their users, who can easily access the app on their phone data plans.

TikTok is owned by Chinese company ByteDance. Since it became the most downloaded app in the U.S. in 2018, it has been a target of lawmakers who have asserted, often with thin evidence, that it has been co-opted by China’s authoritarian government to spy on U.S. users and disseminate propaganda. Donald Trump railed against the app when he was in office, threatening a total U.S. ban. And India, an emerging economic rival to China, did ban TikTok outright in 2020.

More recently, in the U.S., more than two dozen states, including Alabama, Kentucky, Ohio, New Jersey, Arkansas, Wisconsin, Idaho, Texas, Maryland, South Dakota and North Carolina, have banned the app on state-owned devices and networks. On Tuesday, Maine became the 28th state to make the app verboten. Of course, few of those affected by the state and (impending) federal ban use the app.

Not so for students at the universities that have now pulled the app from their networks including Auburn University, University of Oklahoma, Boise State, University of Texas-Austin and Texas A&M. Officials in Florida recently urged all colleges and universities in the state to ban the app. In response, the University of Florida, the state’s largest university system, released a statement saying there is a “strong possibility” that it will ban TikTok from its computer networks. 

Most of the states that have banned the app, but not all, are led by Republican governors who have declared themselves “China hawks” and who are likely unfamiliar with the app. And they certainly aren’t in the market for a $600 Dyson Airwrap or $14 E.l.f Halo Glow Liquid Filter. (“I’m no TikTok user,” admitted Kay Ivey, Alabama’s 78-year-old governor, last December while announcing her state’s ban.)

And so far the campus bans have amounted to little but an annoyance. Still, if beauty brands, and their customers, are not panicking, some are proceeding with caution. That’s because the bans have swept through red states in the South, which is also the epicenter of an important beauty constituency: sororities. RushTok and BamaRush (“Bama” being University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa) exploded on the platform in 2021 — with users documenting the late summer ritual of sorority rush, and the quest to nab an invite to join the (mostly white) sororities that are clustered in Southern universities. The makeup industry has leaned into the rush season, says Alanna Marder, senior director of integrated marketing and communications at ColourPop.

“This makes that a really questionable activity going forward. If most of that Greek life is in the South and a lot of those campuses have TikTok banned, is that the right thing to spend our money on?” she said.

That does not mean the budget-conscious makeup brand is “de-prioritizing TikTok,” continued Marder, who said, “We’re being more calculated about where we invest our energy and funds in TikTok-related initiatives to make sure that these bans aren’t causing an issue with the content or people that we’re trying to get talking.”

Meanwhile, negotiations between ByteDance and the Biden administration continue. After several TikTok employees (in the U.S. and China) were fired for errantly obtaining the data of users including journalists, ByteDance moved U.S. users’ TikTok data to a cloud storage system managed by Oracle, the Silicon Valley software company founded by Larry Ellison.

“It’s a very effective way for a small group of politicians to make headlines,” said Horowitz, whose agency produced the most viral campaign in TikTok history in 2019 with its #EyesLipsFace original song and video for E.l.f. Cosmetics. It attracted more than 5 million user-generated videos (including unsolicited content from a bevy of celebrities such as Lizzo, Reese Witherspoon and Ellen DeGeneres) and 7 billion views.

But the bans have likely had unintended consequences for the saber-rattling politicians who have put them in place.

“It seems to be all talk right now,” continued Horowitz. “When Trump [was talking about banning TikTok] four years ago, it actually drove more attention to TikTok and more fandom around the platform. If there’s one thing that Gen Z loves, it’s to stand up for what they believe in. And right now the vast majority of Gen Z is happy to rally around TikTok.”

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