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'Squid Game'-inspired ads are almost as dystopian as the show itself

Brands using "Squid Game," a commentary on the wealth gap perpetuated by corporations, are missing the mark in their ad campaigns.
The Netflix smash hit "Squid Game" blends a tight plot, social allegory and uncompromising violence to create the latest South Korean cultural phenomenon to go global. Yougkyu Park / AFP - Getty Images

“Squid Game” is a cultural phenomenon, but brand efforts referring to the Korean thriller seem to be falling flat as some advertisements don’t fully account for the show’s bleak premise.

Since its Sept. 17 premiere, the show’s magenta guard costumes, minimalist business cards and life-or-death Dalgona game have become ingrained in pop culture. This weekend, you’ll likely see people sporting “Squid Game”-inspired Halloween costumes (tracksuits are nearly sold out on Walmart, which recently announced a partnership with Netflix to sell merch inspired by the streamer’s shows). The show has also inspired themed events in which players compete in the show’s games in real life — without risking their lives.

Following the popularity of "Squid Game," companies rushed to incorporate the show into ad campaigns, weaving brand logos into Dalgona treats and the game’s symbols. Some of these ads, even if well intentioned, may be perceived as crass due to the sensitive themes in the show, which follows a group of deeply indebted characters competing in violent, gruesome games to win enough money to pay off their debts.

Durex Pakistan, for example, swapped the circle in the game’s symbols with a condom, and captioned the Instagram post, “How long can you last?” A spokesperson for the brand did not immediately respond to NBC News' interview request.

The eagerness of brands to jump on the “Squid Game” phenomenon is just the latest attempt to capitalize on the social media zeitgeist, according to Jay Baer, author and social media marketing strategist. Where this type of marketing was once inexpensive and offered companies global reach, algorithms are increasingly reducing corporate reach. 

“This is hard for brands, because at one point, social media reach was largely inexpensive, and now it is very expensive,” Baer said. “So brands will do almost anything to get quote-unquote 'free exposure.' And the best way to get free exposure, in theory, is to make your brand part of a conversation that is so pervasive that the algorithms can’t suppress it.”

Social media success is based on taking risks, but coming across as inauthentic or pushing an ad that makes users cringe can be counterproductive, Baer said. Because of the dark social commentary at the core of “Squid Game,” it makes it a riskier situation for brands to navigate. 

"Squid Game" became Netflix’s biggest series launch after reaching more than 111 million viewers, the streamer said this month. But despite its international success, the show has been met with unease in South Korea because of the way it portrays the country’s poverty and debt crisis.

The reluctance to talk about debt isn’t exclusive to South Korea, and the lighthearted nature of many ads inspired by “Squid Game” may add to the discomfort when discussing debt.

Feeling shame and discomfort when discussing debt crosses cultural divides. Bruce McClary, vice president of communications for the National Foundation for Credit Counseling (NFCC), told NBC News that debt is not uncommon, even if it’s not openly discussed.

Having debt for reasons beyond control, like from a medical crisis, is easier to talk about. But people are “more likely to experience a little more shame” when it comes to debt from circumstances they may consider personal failings, like gambling or overspending, McClary said.

Seeking counsel despite the shame of carrying debt is difficult, and making jokes about someone’s vulnerable situation may make them less receptive to help, he added. 

Cosplayers attend New York Comic Con as Squid Game characters on Oct. 8, 2021.
Cosplayers attend New York Comic Con as "Squid Game" characters on Oct. 8.Bennett Raglin / Getty Images for ReedPop file

Relief, an app that negotiates with creditors on behalf of users to lower interest rates and sets up payment plans, distributed 10,000 nondescript business cards stamped with the “Squid Game” logo in New York and Miami, AdAge reported. In the show, a character known as “The Salesman” recruits desperate players to the competition by inviting them to bet on paper tiles in a game called Ddakji, before handing them the cryptic business cards. Relief’s cards are nearly identical to those in the show, but instead of including a phone number prompting players to consent to fighting to their deaths, the cards read, “There’s a better way to get out of debt.” 

McClary noted that the ad might get attention, but he sees how some in a desperate situation would think it’s insensitive. The NFCC, for example, counsels individuals facing bankruptcy and foreclosure. 

“If you’re serious about the help that you’re offering, then you’ll approach the topic in a way that’s very serious and respectful to a person’s circumstances,” McClary said. “Making a joke about somebody’s circumstances is not a good way to present yourself as a competent solution to the problem.”

Relief did not immediately respond to NBC News' request for comment.

Other ads inspired by “Squid Game” seem to demonstrate a lack of understanding of the show’s premise entirely.

In one of the games, players had to carve a chosen shape out of a delicate sugar crisp, known as Dalgona or ppopgi, without cracking the original shape. Those who failed to do so are killed. 

Some brands superimposed their logos onto the candy in lieu of the shapes used in “Squid Game.” Hyundai, Brooks Brothers and Pepsi posted mock-ups of the branded candy. 

The campaigns have garnered mixed reactions on social media.

A tweet from Hyundai, which has since been deleted, seemed to strike a nerve among some users on Twitter, given the ongoing labor disputes between workers and car manufacturers in Korea. Hyundai Motors’ unionized members staged a strike nearly every year from its formation in 1987, avoiding one this year with a tentative wage deal.

Some Twitter as users also pointed out the unfortunate connection to the automotive factory worker strike that traumatized one of the show’s central characters. 

Hyundai did not immediately respond to a request for comment from NBC News on the backlash to the now-deleted tweet.

And while Brooks Brothers’ Dalgona tweet received significantly less attention, Baer suggested the brand whose main audience is those who aim to be in corporate boardrooms was also in poor taste.   

“Sometimes you’re not going to get it right, but I think in this case, some of these are just obvious bad luck,” Baer said. “Hyundai is really shockingly not self aware —put Brooks Brothers in a similar camp.” 

The backlash to brand presence in this specific pop culture sphere reflects a broader distaste for marketing on social media, Baer said.

Branded social media accounts on Twitter and TikTok are shaped to be personable entities immersed in online culture, but the effort to humanize brands tends to appear contrived. Corporations using “Squid Game” — a direct social commentary on the wealth gap perpetuated by large corporations — to advertise could come off as ignorant. 

“It’s like the whole show is about, it’s a commentary on the problem that you have. Not those brands specifically, of course, but brands like that,” Baer said. “And so then to say isn’t this funny, we made a [Dalgona] cookie, too ... it does make you wonder if the people involved actually watched the show.”