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Courtesy Ryanair / Tiktok

Ryanair’s TikTok lays bare the dark, twisted heart of capitalism

The budget airline’s social media represents a bold new era of advertising in which the customer, far from being always right, is a snivelling little worm

There has been much talk lately about online abuse, with both the British and American governments drafting strict new legislation aimed at tackling the problem. But the internet’s most venomous troll has slipped under the radar: ultra-budget airline Ryanair. Casting aside the idea that the customer is always right, the brand’s social media presents a new, black-pilled mode of advertising in which the customer is both petulant brat and spineless coward, grumbling impotently as they submit to ever more degrading treatment. 

Ryanair’s TikTok views the people who use its services with disdain and delights in the terrible service it provides them, safe in the knowledge that we are too broke to fly elsewhere. Taking all of the things which people hate about the company and turning them into a source of self-deprecating humour, it jokes about charging people for breathing, mocks customers for complaining about flights “which no one forced them to book”, gloats about having window seats with no windows and charging extortionate additional fees

With both its TikTok and Twitter accounts, Ryanair has trapped its customers in a dom/sub dynamic. In one sense, it’s like the big-dicked top who fucks you good, treats you like shit and knows you’ll come crawling back for more. But the analogy breaks down when you consider that the company has no redeeming qualities other than cost: it’s more like a lover sending you a series of gloating texts about how terrible they are in bed, safe in the knowledge that you have no better options because you’re a broke-ass loser. Plenty of people lap this up, barking like seals (or replying “savage!!!”) at their own abjection. Over the last few years, the account has gained millions of followers and widespread acclaim. “The voice doesn’t just sound human. It sounds like a hilarious member of Gen Z: fluent in the latest memes, ready to pounce on bad takes and eager to troll for likes,” enthused one article in The Washington Post, which described it as “the most savage account of any airline”.

Ryanair’s antagonistic, self-mocking approach isn’t entirely new. Brands have been using irony for decades, usually in an attempt to capture something about the zeitgeist: in the 1990s it was slacker disaffection, today it is informed by the often chaotic and nihilistic humour of social media. Companies have previously embraced a bad reputation in an effort to transform it (one 2004 Skoda advert was premised entirely on the fact that everyone hated their product) and others have leaned into obnoxiousness – Cards Against Humanity, for example, once crowd-funded $100,000 to dig a hole in the ground. When people complained, “why didn’t you donate it to charity?” they replied, “why didn’t the donators?” Pretty twisted stuff… More recently, there has been a trend of advertising based on the idea that capitalism sucks: a Subway/UberEats advert with the slogan, “when your day is long, go footlong”, and a footwear brand cracking jokes about how young people today will never be able to retire.

@ryanair The only airline to slay this hard 💅 #slay #ryanair ♬ sonido original - ezspeedsongs 🎧

As journalist Tristan Cross writes in The Guardian, these adverts “self-consciously [ape] the sardonic disaffection and dejection that many of us feel” andaffect a knowing posture, as if they, too, share our dissatisfactions with the modern world”. But this is slightly different to what Ryanair is doing: the brands mentioned above are coming to you as a friend, smiling in commiseration, and promising you respite from a cold and uncaring world. The Ryanair TikTok account is the cold and uncaring world. It is the sneering face of capitalist domination, lip-syncing to an audio recording of a toddler or a sassy exchange from a Bravo series.

Like Ray Liotta in Goodfellas, Ryanair’s message is simple: fuck you, pay me. Forgot to print out your boarding pass because you’re an old-age pensioner and you don’t know what an app is? Fuck you, pay me. Your luggage weighs a couple of grams over the limit because you’re transporting your grandmother’s ashes? Fuck you, pay me. Your flight has been cancelled through no fault of your own and you need to rebook? Fuck you, that’ll be £80. As a brand, they do not pretend to “value” their customers – we are profit cows and nothing more. CEO Michael O’Leary said himself that he would charge us to use the bathroom if he could. Instead of trying to gloss over this cold-blooded, mercenary streak, the Ryanair TikTok account embraces it. 

There is admittedly something refreshing in its refusal to frame a transactional relationship in the sentimental terms of family or friendship. This is a carefully considered marketing strategy, no more authentic or anarchic than any other, and the decision to not sound “too corporate” has, of course, been signed off by corporate executives. It’s still capitalism with a human face, it’s just presenting itself as an outrageous oomfie rather than as a kindly neighbour or supportive friend. But the company’s celebration of its own greed does hint at a larger truth.

While they typically expend great effort in persuading us otherwise, the Ryanair approach is – at heart – how every business views its customers, from the major corporations downwards (except for youth culture and fashion publications, it should go without saying!) The cute little queer cafe that serves snacks and hosts Heartstopper viewing parties. The girl you went to uni with who has started hawking ethically sourced healing crystals on Instagram. The ten-year-old Girl Guide knocking on your door with a tray of home-baked cookies and a fantastical tall tale about raising funds for a local hospice. If they could get away with it, they would all slit your throat for the change in your pocket. Ryanair is just one of the few companies saying it out loud, having calculated – it would seem correctly – that we would find this admission funny. 

In this respect, the Ryanair TikTok account shares a spiritual kinship with Donald Trump. As political theorist Corey Robin argues in The Reactionary Mind, part of the former president’s appeal was his willingness to expose the moral emptiness of capitalism, even as he revelled in it. Where previous generations of right-wing politicians had venerated the free market as a site of heroic and noble deeds, for Trump it was simply a matter of winning or losing – as he put it, investing in the stock market was no different from playing poker in a casino. Even though he proposed little in the way of changing it, Trump punctured some of the more flattering illusions about how our economy functions – and many people loved him for it. Are you starting to see the parallels yet? Only time can tell whether fans of the Ryanair TikTok account will go on to attempt an insurrection of their own, perhaps storming the British Airways Member’s Lounge in a fit of populist hysteria.

All that said, it would be overstating the case to praise Ryanair for its brutal honesty. While the company is happy to poke fun at its minor sins, the inconveniences and shakedowns with which anyone who has flown with them will already be familiar, it is not cracking jokes about its allegedly terrible working conditions, its violation of labour laws or the fact it was reprimanded by a watchdog for misleading claims about being a “low-CO2 emissions” airline, when it is in fact one of the worst polluters in Europe.

Ryanair’s bolshy TikTok account might be a calculated bit of schtick, but it’s entirely in line with the ethos of CEO Michael O’Leary, a man who admires Margaret Thatcher, who remarked that environmentalists should be shot, and once said, “You’re not getting a refund so fuck off. We don’t want to hear your sob stories. What part of ‘no refund’ don’t you understand?” Is this endearing brusqueness, or the contempt of a multimillionaire towards ordinary people? And is it an attitude any more charming when transposed onto the grotesque lips of an anthropomorphised airplane? Some of the videos are quite funny, and they are clearly an effective marketing tactic, but there’s something ugly at the heart of it all. If you want a picture of the future, imagine the Ryanair TikTok account calling you a pathetic little worm – forever.

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