Why Shitting in the Seine Is a Slay on Social

June 18, 2024
By Olivia DuCharme

To young Parisians, the event of the summer isn’t July 26, the day of the Olympics Opening Ceremony, but rather June 23, a day of pooping as protest — or so claims the X hashtag #JeChieDansLaSeineLe23Juin (translation: #I’mShittingInTheSeineOnJune23). The Seine has been off limits to swimmers since 1923 because of its toxic reputation (pun intended). But now, 101 years later, Olympic officials plan to use the Seine for open-water competitions, and in addition to spending $1.5 billion on clean-up efforts, French president Emmanuel Macron and Parisian mayor Anne Hidalgo have vowed to swim in the Seine to prove its waters are safe. The date of their dip? June 23.

But where — and why — and how — does the shit come in? TL;DR: the young French are angry about the amount of public money politicians have spent in the name of the Olympics, so they’re planning to quite literally shit on Macron and Hidalgo’s publicity event to express their frustration. (The hashtag’s accompanying catchphrase — “They got us into shit, it’s their turn to get into our shit” — seems to sum up the whole idea pretty nicely).

Spending big bucks on urban renewal projects for the Olympics is hardly unprecedented (the 2014 Sochi games cost a record $55 billion, and Los Angeles has already secured $900 million in funding for public transit ahead of the 2028 games), but young Parisians have different financial priorities. According to The Economist, Paris is the seventh most expensive city in the world, with rent prices more than doubling since the ‘80s. And the Olympics have only made things worse. Politico reports that many Parisian landlords are opting to list their properties on Airbnb for visitors at hiked prices instead of renting them out to actual Parisians, decreasing available listings by 74%. Accordingly, the young French think their government has misplaced priorities.

As we’d expect, young people are taking to social media to air their grievances. What’s unexpected, though, is how they leverage surprise, shock, and ridiculousness to make their critique. Very few posts directly communicate frustration by simply stating something like: “Your project is a giant waste of our money; we are so mad at you.” Instead, the #JeChieDansLaSeineLe23Juin posts revolve around a competing event, soiling the Seine. We call this unique combination of cultural context, ridiculous situation, and implicit critique a weaponization of absurdity.

Let’s take a closer look at what weaponized absurdity looks like in practice. One #JeChieDansLaSeineLe23Juin post depicts an AI-generated line of toilets flanking the Seine, perhaps referencing the skibidi toilet trend that’s popular with Gen Alpha, with the caption “installation in progress.”

Another spoofs the Paris music festival Rock en Seine with the familiar format of a lineup sheet, but replaces the headlining acts with Macron and Hidalgo and changes the title to Crotte en Seine (translation: Poop in the Seine).

Finally, another invokes the image of Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the modern Olympic Games, and puts a twist on his famous maxim: “The important thing is to participate.”

Notice how none of these posts contain logistical information about the June 23 protest (you know, “Drink a double shot of espresso by 9, then meet us on the shores of the Seine at 10. Bring your own toilet paper!”). Instead, all three draw on a very specific reference — whether from history or social media — to talk around, not about, the event. By never sharing explicit details about the protest — or even the fact that there is a protest — these posts are extremely confusing to those who don’t understand the context, but extremely hilarious to those who do.

Let’s take a look at another example of weaponized absurdity, the “normalize naming your kids after something you love” trend, which you may have seen Kraft Mac & Cheese, the NHL, and the US Open all picking up on. (Here, Gen Z isn’t making a pointed criticism; they’re just poking fun at millennials and their fondness for quirky baby names.) In particular, the US Open’s contribution matches Gen Z’s vibe. First, it’s nine lines long. It also requires the audience to (a) know who Millie Bobbie Brown and Louis Partridge are, (b) remember that they co-starred in the Netflix film Enola Holmes, and (c) recall their grainy IG livestream from 2020. In isolation, the TikTok is nothing short of ridiculous.

But if you compare it to other content Gen Z is posting, not so much. Both the “Good night, Jesse St. James singing ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ as Quinn gives birth” and “Good night, that moment in Twilight when Robert Pattinson’s accent slips while saying, ‘So you’re worried’” TikToks require the audience to not only have watched (and, as Gen Z likes to do, rewatch and rewatch) Glee and Twilight, but to be able to recall pinpointed moments instantaneously.

Even if the US Open’s TikTok mimics Gen Z’s communication style, a post so specific and so absurd feels risky — but it seems the US Open doesn’t care. They understand that posts like these aren’t all about metrics (although this one did rack up 95,000 likes). They’re about developing long-term trust. However ridiculous this TikTok may seem, it’s not absurd for absurdity’s sake. It’s a demonstration of strategic absurdity rooted in deep audience and cultural observation — the exact approach Gen Z uses to communicate. And that’s why this TikTok was a hit, with comments ranging from “pls send me tickets to the final for free” to “culturally significant” — the Gen Z equivalent of a gold star. When brands post content like this, they signal to Gen Z that they know what’s going on, and, more importantly, they get them. And when Gen Z feels seen and understood, they’re more likely to pay attention. So you can bet that come August, Gen Z will be tuning in to the US Open (and not just because of Challengers).

To young people, absurdity isn’t just shock value; it’s a calculated blend of ridiculous actions and cultural contexts that’s both playful and pointed. This generation doesn’t need to — and doesn’t seem to want to — be explicit. For them, implying something is far more powerful than stating it directly. (It’s especially effective when the target of ridicule doesn’t understand that they’re being mocked.) This communication style allows young people to connect with peers who “get it” and leave those who don’t two or three steps behind — the worst place for brands and creatives to be. Sure, young people have long wielded inside jokes to make older generations feel, well, old. But now, inside jokes have migrated to social media, where young people dominate and dictate discourse.  Given that brands are investing their time, money, and talent to reach young people on social, it’s critical to be in on the joke, not left out of it — or worse, the target of it.

To not end up butts of the joke like Macron and Hidalgo, we need to “get” young people and their communication style — and to do that, we need to recognize that our cultural memory is larger than ever. Most young people’s bank of knowledge extends beyond the expected (history, art, and pop culture) and into social media conventions and online trends. Now, being “well-read” is more than buying a New Yorker subscription and having a penchant for contemporary design. Instead, it’s about being “chronically online,” so in touch with what’s happening online and IRL that you can connect new information to existing knowledge automatically — and then share that connection on social just as quickly. This is something that savvy Gen Z-focused brands understand and act on at speed.

Which brings us back to a river in France. Young people have no problem with the act of swimming in the Seine (one can imagine the online glee if a Gen Z-er had swum in the Seine “for the plot,” or better yet, to protest the rising cost of living); their issue is with what it celebrates: extravagant political spending. Young people only enjoy something ridiculous if it reflects their reality. To Gen Z, if someone doesn’t “get it” (and by “it,” we mean them), it’s fun to get on social and make them easy targets of a subversive, absurdist, “chronically online” critique — hence trends like #JeChieDansLaSeineLe23Juin.

But even if this trend never turns into a “crappy” real-life protest, we can glean a few observations for our own bank of knowledge. To keep up with Gen Z, we need to understand that trends aren’t just trends; they’re evidence of audience attitudes. As trends like this one demonstrate, the Gen Z attitude is a blend of irreverence, cultural awareness, unexpected connections — and, as always, the desire to be a part of something, even if that means standing against something…or shitting in it. This attitude may feel a little uncomfortable for those of us who don’t want to risk confusing or offending our audiences. But, when you’re dealing with a uniquely intelligent generation that celebrates the absurd, taking a risk is the safest thing you can do.

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