"Do you guys want to enter our selfie contest?" a young woman in a Wheat-Thins-box-colored fleece asks some middle-aged tourists amid the throngs in Times Square. They don't. It is 4:30 p.m. on an April afternoon, and after six and a half hours pitching the social media part of Wheat Thins' promotional blitz for its new popped cracker, this poor woman estimates that fewer than 100 people who've ambled through the blocklong promotion have taken her up on the offer.
The hardy few who did were subjected to a gauntlet of instructions: Take a selfie in front of this mirror, which will show you in front of a towering, boxy homage to thin wheat chips. Follow @WheatThins on Instagram, and post the picture with not one but two promotional hashtags. The 10 people with the most "likes" will each win "a personalized selfie" from none other than Kelly Osbourne, from that MTV reality show that was a sensation in 2002.
The prize is what, exactly? "She's going to send you a selfie," announces a different woman with a microphone, who is emceeing the event. "You're going to be tagged in it. It's kind of an amazing thing because it's going to look like, 'Hey, Kelly Osbourne is my new bestie and she just sent me this photo!'"
At that, zero additional people head over to the selfie mirror. Nearby, Wheat Thins is also giving out free bags of chips. The line there is 50 people deep.
Like the mentally challenged Lennie in Of Mice and Men (playing on Broadway just blocks away), brands have yet again picked up something cute and squished it to death. People have taken photos of themselves since the dawn of the camera (and painted self-portraits since the dawn of time), but once we started calling them selfies, the act was imbued with a magical newness—and for brands, a bottomless potential for user-generated, social-media-fueled marketing. Kids take and share photos of themselves; surely they'll do it with brands in the frame too!
The siren call has echoed through the hallways of marketing departments, moving, as always, far slower than the speed of actual trends. Wheat Thins is especially late to the selfie party. There was already, of course, Samsung and its grating, high-profile celebrity selfies. There have been contests from the likes of Jamba Juice (#SmoothieSelfie) and Bloomingdale's (#BloomieSelfie). Dove made a movie for the Sundance Film Festival called Selfie, and ABC picked up a sitcom called Selfie. Turkish Airlines ran a campaign featuring Kobe Bryant and Lionel Messi taking photos of . . . each other? Kidding: They took selfies. Sephora issued a press release claiming that it's "turning selfies into sales," which is the phrase we'll now chisel on the selfie's tombstone.
Selfie is now a word most often heard out of the mouths of marketing execs, the ones who call youth marketing agencies and say, "Let's do something with selfies!" "I hear that all the time," says Gregg Witt, chief engagement officer of Immersive Youth Marketing. "They're either a full poseur or someone who wants to fit in. Man, it's like 50 days late and a million dollars short to say that." As the selfie makes its final duck face, let's consider this last chapter of its legacy: Trend chasing in the Internet era is desperate and lazy. And bad for business.
Remember flash mobs, those countercultural bursts of synchronized dancing in a park or subway station? After artists and pranksters organized many for fun, brands hired pros to stage their own. Amy's Kitchen made one; its rep wanted to surprise a crowd "with something new and different." A Nike spokesman said the company organized one because "we're always looking for new ways to engage our consumers." Ferrero, maker of Tic Tac candies, said its recent flash mob enabled it to reach customers in "a breakout way."
All those quotes came from a Wall Street Journal story from last year—as in 2013, a full decade after flash mobs began. "If it's trending, you already missed the moment," says Jake Katz, VP of audience insights and strategy at the TV network Revolt. "You cannot give the people what they already have."
Katz calls this the overcommoditization of trending. "In the '90s," he explains, "you had the overcommoditization of cool, where brands would try to grab artists and be cool. And now people are looking at things that are trending, whether it's on Twitter or elsewhere on social, and they just grab them and commoditize the shit out of them."
By the time the Harlem Shake mercifully died, every brand from Pepsi to Google had made a video. "Gangnam Style" showed up in commercials for pistachios and the Kia Soul. Even planking, the benchwarmer of Internet Meme All-Stars, was scooped up for a Motel 6 radio ad. New? Different? No.
The selfie phenomenon has revealed many layers of corporate cluelessness. Sony, for example, put a few of its cameras in an Australian zoo's trees in April. The resident koalas went over to explore and—snap!—the press release wrote itself: "Koalas take 'selfies' with the Sony Cyber-shot QX camera." That same month, Applebee's tweeted out: "It's #SelfieSunday! Here's ours. Let us see yours!"
The photo was of a generic Applebee's building. The problem is a selfie, by definition, requires that the person in the photo is also taking the photo. It cannot be a "selfie" simply because you will it to be one. I called Applebee's to ask if they understood this. "It's not like there's a face of the brand," answers Jill McFarland, Applebee's senior manager of digital and social media. "The facade of the building is the face of the brand. When you think about what a selfie of Applebee's is, that's what comes to mind for us." Here's another once-trending thing: #fail.
What not-yet-mainstream trend will be exploited next? Immersive Youth Marketing's Witt asked a panel of 30 teens, and they took some guesses: freestyle scootering, the tell-all app Secret, and an over-the-top Japanese pop style called Super Kawaii. And sure enough, brands have already infiltrated Snapchat.
It doesn't have to be this way, even for big, slow brands. Revolt TV's Katz was impressed recently by Kraft Singles' new campaign, which uses rich sandwich photography, a focus on no artificial preservatives, and language that appeals to young foodies. "They're not hiring an artisan cheese maker and a social media strategist to be real-time during the Super Bowl," he says. "But they can be like, 'Look, we get it. You've seen a lot of innovation in the past 10 years. We're going to talk about Kraft in a new way.' " Kraft, which used to be a corporate sibling of Wheat Thins, said its own thing. It rewrote old ideas. It acted.
"I like doing selfies with friends, like, in parties, or in a nice place," explains Carmela Queirolo Pollio, who's visiting New York from Uruguay and passed on the Wheat Thins promotion. "But for brands? I will only do a selfie if there is a prize. This is not the right prize."
Indeed, the "personalized selfie" turned out to be a photo of a very bored-looking Kelly Osbourne holding a sign containing 10 winners' Instagram handles. It drew 20 comments; one was about Wheat Thins, and nine were about her hair. It received more than 13,800 likes, which is low for Osbourne, who has more than 1.4 million Instagram followers. A recent one of her dog in a wig was liked 32,000 times.
And about that sign she was holding: Osbourne used both hands. Someone else took the photo.
A version of this article appeared in the July/August 2014 issue of Fast Company magazine.