With inflation above 10% for the first time since the early 1980s, households across the UK are struggling. Real terms wages are falling. Taxes are increasing. The cost of basic items – such as food, energy, fuel, and mortgage or rent costs – have gone up dramatically.
As a result, many are being pushed into poverty. Their responses are being documented online, through the TikTok hashtag #CostofLivingCrisis. It’s the latest trend to grip TikTok, the world’s most popular entertainment app.
#CostofLiving posts highlight, in human terms, the financial as well as emotional crisis that many consumers are going through. We see users constantly worry about their finances and being forced to make difficult decisions every day.
Many describe feeling low, anxious, sad or angry – and in countless other videos, these moods are tangible but unspoken. Other users recount the physical toll that financial stress is taking on their body, such as struggling with insomnia, low energy, headaches, high blood pressure or constant anxiety. For some, the trade-offs include having to borrow money at the end of the month to make ends meet. A few respond to the crisis by taking loans, raising fears about accumulating long-term debts.
It is clear, therefore, that brands need to get to the bottom of these diverse emotions and coping strategies to reach and engage audiences. Reading the public mood correctly and responding with empathy, not condescension, is vital to navigating the complexities of this new economic landscape.
To provide brands with this essential business insight, we’ve analysed more than 500 TikTok videos on the cost of living crisis using our first-of-its-kind, qualitative TikTok methodology. By exploring how consumers talk about their struggle, what emotions they’re experiencing and what coping mechanisms they are using to overcome them, we will show brands how to walk in their shoes. What opportunities you have to reach them. To speak their language.
To walk you through our findings, we have structured our report into two distinct sections:
- Strategies: how are TikTok creators using the platform to minimise, process and overcome their financial and emotional struggles?
- Opportunities: what can marketers do to better reach and engage with audiences dealing with the cost-of-living crisis?
Overall, we find that:
- People are going through an emotional, not just a financial crisis. Many are struggling to cope with their anxiety and stress just as much as they are with paying their bills on time.
- Facing emotional and financial problems, TikTokers adopt three principal coping strategies, each of which corresponds closely to a specific age cohort.
- Younger users are most likely to respond to the crisis with humour. They use humour to emphasise the absurdity of the situation and their corresponding feelings of helplessness. They adopt a more nihilistic attitude than the other age groups, using TikTok to bond over a shared experience (rather than as practical help for cost-cutting or lobbying for change).
- Parents and family-based creators turn to TikTok for emotional and practical support from fellow users, seeing the platform as a source of help and solidarity.
- Older users tend to be the most political, viewing their struggle within a broader societal scope. They are more inclined to use TikTok as a political tool to lobby the government, usually to argue for state intervention. Older users likewise tend to be most vocal about attributing blame: they often pin the crisis squarely and directly on the British government or ‘foreigners’.
In light of these findings, brands have an opportunity to:
- Show empathy for customers. This is more important than ever during a deepening financial and emotional crisis. So put audience insights at the forefront of your corporate strategy for the immediate future, so you can keep up with how your people are feeling.
- Remember that actions speak louder than words. Empathy shouldn’t be used as a comms tool. Instead, brands should approach consumers as people first and find ways to meet their needs. Businesses that can point to concrete measures they are taking to improve people’s lives will fare better.
- Adapt messaging to address the needs of specific TikTok cohorts and the distinct strategies they adopt. One size does not fit all.
- When talking to GenZ about the cost-of-living crisis, remember that they may well be feeling anxious, cynical, disillusioned, pessimistic about the future and deeply nihilistic. These are powerful emotions that aren’t obvious – making them great to centre a campaign around. Gen-Zs are also used to a lower quality of life than their elders – and aren’t expecting that to change anytime soon. By appreciating that, brands can understand how Gen-Zs attitude can be both freeing and depressing.
- Appreciate that the cost-of-living crisis risks exacerbating high levels of anxiety among all consumer groups. Care should be taken when referencing peoples’ daily struggles in any new creative.
- Brands should take entertainment seriously to reach Gen-Zs. By delivering content in the same easy-going, humorous and accessible manner, brands can learn to speak their language.
- Communicating should be seen as an investment, not an expense. Brands which invest in recessions come out stronger and ready for the upturn. If you continue to do quality communications, you’re building your brand even when the opportunity for immediate sale may not be as obvious.
- Brands should take this time to work on becoming credible agents of social change, to avoid accusations of hypocrisy, cynicism or whitewashing.
Let’s dive into the details.
In a time of crisis, why do people turn to TikTok? How are they instrumentalising the platform to deal with their financial and emotional struggles? What do they hope to gain from documenting their travails on social media?
A wide array of things, as it turns out.
We’ve seen users respond to the crisis, and in turn harness the power of TikTok, in a number of disparate ways. Three strategies in particular dominate: using humour as a coping mechanism, seeking practical and emotional support from the TikTok community, or using the platform to lobby for political change.
A user’s strategy of choice seems to above all depend on their generational background. Here is a breakdown of the three dominant generational cohorts, and their preferred TikTok strategy.
- Younger users were most likely to respond to the crisis with humorous TikToks. They primarily use humour to emphasise the absurdity of the situation and their corresponding feelings of helplessness. They adopt a more nihilistic attitude than the other age groups, using the platform to bond over a shared experience rather than as practical help for cost-cutting.
- Parents and family-based TikTok accounts are most inclined to focus on budgeting their way out of the crisis. They are also the most likely group to turn to TikTok for emotional and practical support from fellow users, seeing the platform as a source of help and solidarity.
- Older users tend to be the most political, viewing their struggle within a broader societal scope. They are more inclined to use TikTok as a political tool to lobby the government, usually to argue for state intervention. Older users likewise tend to be most vocal about attributing blame: they often pin the crisis squarely and directly on the British government or on immigrants.
Let’s examine the three TikTok strategies in more detail.
Make ‘em laugh: how Gen-Z uses humour in the face of crisis
Humour, the capacity to express or perceive what’s funny, is both a source of entertainment and a means of coping with difficult and stressful situations. In short, it’s serious business. Humour plays an instrumental role in forming social bonds and releasing tension through escapism – and so too during the cost-of-living crisis.
We see a large part of users go out of their way to create entertaining content about their personal financial and emotional struggles or the poor state of the wider economy. This is taken to such a degree that common joke templates emerge, recycled by countless users. One common example is the boat filter. It is often paired with titanic music and presents the person sailing away from problems of the cost-of-living crisis. Here is an example below:
#videoxfoto on my way makka pakka #makkapakka #crisis #costofliving #trend #trending #atkosarmy #viral #foryou #foryoupage #foryourpage #fyp #fypシ #fypage #comedy #fy #humor #humour #igglepiggle #inthenightgarden #mustwatch #for #f
In another joke template, the central heating auction joke, videos feature an auction chant and bid calling audio at the same time as the creator records a rising gas meters or mounting bills. This formula recurs in many TikTok and emphasises the helplessness and lack of control users feel as prices escalate.
There may be something very British about finding the funny side in the face of adversity, but it also seems to be distinctly generational: Millennials and Gen-Zs overwhelmingly resort to this coping mechanism on TikTok.
Why is this?
The nature of the jokes themselves indicate that, firstly, younger users are more used to experiencing poor living conditions and struggling financially. Many joke that low wages, student debt or little savings long acclimatised them to many of the measures older users complain about having to resort to, such as living without heating or carefully comparing price points in grocery stores.
In this video, for instance, we see a millennial TikToker jokingly take pride in going without heating for years, ever since the Covid pandemic first tumbled household budgets.
And as for the young users that have not previously had to resort to aggressive budgeting measures, many seem more at ease to adopt them than their older peers. Numerous young TikTokers, for instance, say they’ve become vegetarian or vegan to save money. With a lower quality of life to begin with, it seems younger users are more open-minded to make lifestyle changes to save money.
But most younger users don’t offer their peers practical advice, choosing instead to focus on finding the absurd in the current situation. Some have even nicknamed it “Cozzie Livs”. Much like the predecessors Rona (Coronavirus) and Panny-D (the pandemic), the term seems once again to be Gen Z’s way of finding humour in a tough situation. By using nicknames and evoking outlandish ideas, such as resorting to selling your liver in the video below, Gen Zs and millennials express that they consider their struggles beyond their control.
Their nihilism is understandable: this is a generation that has grown up with multiple global and financial crises, widening generational inequality and low quality of life. They may not expect much else, unlike the older TikTok users who take to the platform to bemoan and decry financial uncertainty and a sudden drop in lifestyle.
We now turn to them, and the strategy of TikTok protest.
Protest and division: seniors rising up against broken Britain
On the opposite end of jokey inaction is raw, angry, political activism. This group is not willing to accept and submit to the status quo by finding glimmers of comedy. Instead, they weaponise TikTok, intent on spreading a message of social injustice and of building a movement for political change.
Interestingly, this group tends to skew towards an older demographic. Boomer users are most inclined to argue for state intervention and demand political change. While they complain about their lot, this group clearly feels most empowered: older users feel they have a right to be heard.
This likely reflects the power they hold at the ballot box. The votes of seniors loom ever larger, dominating the spending promises of all the main political parties. And where those policies threaten the seniors’ finances, political parties suffer. This is the political leverage that older users on TikTok use to their advantage. Another reason that older users, in particular, may be turning to the government to ease their financial pain may be because they paradoxically have higher levels of trust in the government as an institution than Gen-Zs or millennials. The government can, they believe, and should, address their problems – unlike young users, who have little such expectations.
Activist TikTokers also feature news segments more in their posts than other groups – perhaps reflecting that this largely older age group consumes more traditional media than their younger peers. Many record themselves reacting negatively to news headlines, to then go on to rant about price rises or policy changes.
One type of imagery reappears time and time again: the view that Britain as ‘broken’. To TikTok activists, the cost-of-living crisis has highlighted social injustice, a broken social contract and a country in collapse. Complaints about “the state of the country” are common. Other phrases such as “in this day and age” and “in 2022” is used to express a sense that Britain is behind. Interestingly, these terms are mentioned in tandem with references to strike action, collapsing public services and the housing crisis. So, while newspapers may not draw direct parallels between all of these limping areas of British economic and political life, TikTokers certainly do: it’s all one big indistinguishable mess to them.
In this video, for instance, an angry man complains about freezing in his own home due to high energy costs. He swears over having to suffer through this “in this day and age”, “in this f*cking country”. His video description reiterates how betrayed he feels by Britain’s broken social contract: it says he is “sick and tired of this country”.
Similarly, in this video, a woman films herself with sad background music and the caption:
“Life is just too hard I’m so sick of struggling in this day and age there should be enough for everybody”.
As we see in these videos, a sense of unfairness permeates. The cost-of-living crisis is stoking class conflict online. People’s day-to-day financial struggles are understood by many as a symptom of a much deeper disease; as a ‘crisis of inequality’. A language of greed is prescribed to perceived elites and their supposed system.
This video illustrates heightened class identity when talking about the cost-of-living crisis. A man at a trade union meeting voices frustration and anger with the government, in what he calls a deliberate and political choice to put workers into this crisis. Mistrust and scepticism of the government are evident as he says “they are robbing us blind.” The man claims:
“We are being attacked as a class, we need to fight back as a class.”
Part 1 of Fire Brigades Union National Officer Riccardo La Torre speaking at the #Southend #enoughisenough Rally 24/11/22 #essex #union #FBU #workers #joinaunion #costoflivingcrisis #NHS #posties #trainworkers
The language of class is evidently providing a mobilising force for discontent and fuelling resistance against the government.
With a consensus that Britain is broken among TikTok activists, many take to overt political protest. Some petition to incite change, with many posts featuring links to petitions that private individuals have started. Most are centred around rising energy bills and schemes to help combat this for winter. Others use their posts to discuss the policy decisions of the government.
In this video, for example, a woman speaks out against how communities are helping each other survive the winter; the government is perceived as not doing enough. She recruits her followers to join her to protest to change the system.
In many other posts, TikTokers pit their everyday struggles against the government’s geopolitical policy decisions. Many express anger that British politicians are sending money to Ukraine whilst the British population is on their knees. Others complain that they spend taxpayers’ money on helping refugees coming in small boats. Many feel that they are not being prioritised by the government during their hour of need.
These attacks illustrate a broader trend: out of the three groups we found, TikTok activists are the most inclined to blame others for their personal financial struggles. These angry, older users tend to pin the crisis squarely and directly on politicians or foreigners (whether that’s foreigners in the UK, refugees trying to enter the country or Ukrainians receiving foreign aid).
This boomer TikToker manages to blame all the above, slamming the UK government, migrants, the French and Ukraine all in one post. Here she is jokingly paraphrasing the UK government:
“We can’t afford inflation-busting pay rises. We can, however, afford multi-million pounds to house people who shouldn’t be here. To house illegal immigrants. And then we give millions to France to help us with the aforementioned problem, and they’ve done chuff all. While we’re at it, we’re pretty much bankrupt as a country but we’re gonna make sure that Ukraine has money. Let’s borrow them 15 million, and another 16 million to help them with heating costs this year for their poor citizens. You can all go get shagged, we don’t care about all of you! We’re more than happy to pay for these guys who spread diseases around the place, who join criminal gangs….Makes perfect sense…”
A smaller minority of TikTok activists even blame other TikTok users for the cost-of-living crisis. These people are angry that other users deploy the platform as a means of learning budget-saving hacks rather than demanding change. By trying to make the best out of their situation, they are perceived as complicit in maintaining the rotten status quo. In one video, for example, a TikToker vented her frustration over seeing users uncritically accept their financial struggle. As she says in the post, she is:
“So sick of seeing videos saying wear a jumper of advice on turning the heating down one degree. Start petitions. Rioting. Anything but normalising this.”
It is to these ‘hacksters’ we now turn. Having examined TikTok activists and their weaponization of the platform to lobby for change, scapegoat and advocate for greater social justice, we’ll now explore the third major coping strategy on TikTok: the support-seekers and givers.
Families banding together: community, assistance and charity on TikTok
The last coping strategy we’re seeing TikTok users adopt is support-seeking; whether emotional or practical. Mothers and family-based TikTok accounts are overrepresented: they turn to others for advice, hacks and encouragement – and give, in turn. They turn to TikTok to meet like-minded people in similar situations; who can help them cope with the crisis through both practical tips and camaraderie.
So, on the one hand, this group are the chief producers and consumers of the ‘advice’ video. Never mind joking or turning to political activism; they’re inclined to budget their way out of the crisis. Advice on bargain hunting at charity shops is common. There is also a strong focus on cutting food costs. Videos often feature meal ideas on a budget, exchange cheap recipe tips, as well as videos of their weekly food shop – perhaps reflecting that mothers are still primarily held responsible for cooking and household chores. These women turn to TikTok to simplify their gendered family obligations. In this video, for instance, a mother shows how viewers can make beef stew on a budget for just £1.55 per person.
Beef stew on a budget £1.51 a head with dumplings and warm bread 🥖 comfort foods on a cold cozy day #costoflivingcrisis #creditcrunch #feedafamilyoffour #cozyfood #beefcasserole #bagforlife #stomaqueen #normalizegettingfixed
Then there are the videos focusing on emotional support in tough times. Many take to TikTok to hear – and tell others – that they don’t have to suffer on their own and there are people out there that’ll listen, help and contribute. This comes in the form of multiple expressions of sympathy and the importance of solidarity.
In this video, for instance, a man recounts having to borrow money at the end of the month from friends and family to make ends meet, despite working full-time. He has very strong and mixed emotions about his situation, captured in the video text: “I have to laugh or I would cry”. He is clearly seeking out emotional support from other users to help him deal with these feelings, using the hashtags #positivitylacking and #staystrong to prompt other users to express sympathy and solidarity.
#chitchat2022 #costofliving #electrickeymetre #paypel #youcanloughorcry😀😭 #whatajoke #livingonbreadlinein2022 but I have a roof over my head and bed to sleep in and clothes to wear and friends and family 👪 #sobringontheworsed #goingcrazy tired of long hours and ending up like this #positivitylacking but not gone #staystrong
Some express solidarity and empathy in less emotional ways. We see many users, for instance, advertise their friends’ and families’ shops and services in an effort to help them stay afloat. Buying locally is also applauded as an effective way of helping the community.
Others use their TikTok voice to emphasise the importance of being kind and helpful to others, such as helping out with chores and day-to-day activities, to take the burden off struggling families and individuals. They rally against materialism: we should embrace less spending, gifts and comforts. The cost-of-living crisis is an opportunity to get out of a rat race of glorified consumerism and focus on our loved ones.
The smallest subset of users are donors. They advocate for stepping in to help those struggling with their bills. Most describe giving to their friends and family, like the man in this video describing how he pays for his grandmother’s expensive energy costs.
But other donors give freely to strangers on the platform, harnessing TikTok to raise money for the poor. In this video, for instance, we see an uncle and neice share that they are giving away £400 each to four families this Christmas to help buy food and presents. They say they want to help as many families as possible and extend the help to strangers they’ve encountered on the platform. The video is met with optimism, support and empathy.
It’s been a tough year for so many! So we wanted to help where we can! My niece and I have partnered up to give away £2000 Christmas shouldn’t be the only time people give BUT we wanted to genuinely allow some families to have an amazing Christmas and buying lots of food and presents for their families. You don’t need to tell us what the money will do for you! 1. Just comment below and Savanna will randomly pick 5 people to get £400 each ❤️ Good luck ❤️ ❤️ #costoflivingcrisis #ukgovernment #helpingothers #charitywork #kindness #helpinghands #changinglives #helpingpeople #costoflivinghelp #loveothers @Tj Atkinson | Property Coach
Some videos show the excited response from grateful receivers. In the video below, we see one family use TikTok to raise money to pay for their child’s hospital bill. The parents express their gratitude to their “TikTok family”, visibly touched, and write in the video description:
“There are not enough words for what our TikTok family mean to us 💗 THANK YOU!”
The video is an update from the creator BossMama. She posts very frequently, letting viewers into her private life and daily struggles on a continuous basis. The intimacy this creates between viewer and broadcaster is precisely what makes appeals for donations and charity on TikTok so powerful.
So what does all of this mean for brands? How should businesses respond to consumers’ problems and strategies to overcome them on TikTok? A couple of things are clear:
Show empathy for customers
This is more important than ever during a deepening financial and emotional crisis. So put audience insights at the forefront of your corporate strategy for the immediate future, so you can keep up with how your people are feeling.
Adapt your messaging to specific TikTok cohorts and user strategies
A one size fits all won’t do. You won’t reach TikTok activists through a 2-minute explainer video on how your product pushes down prices. Nor will a Gen-Zer listen to a rallying cry for public policy reform. Adapt your messaging to echo the strategies of each age cohort in order to better reach and engage with them.
Take entertainment seriously
The results are in: entertaining is a really valid strategy. Our analysis shows us that brands can reach the increasingly important consumer group Gen Zs by delivering content in the same easy-going, humorous and accessible manner that they communicate in.
Don’t underestimate Gen-Z pessimism
When talking to GenZ about the cost-of-living crisis, remember that they may well be feeling anxious, cynical, disillusioned, pessimistic about the future and deeply nihilistic. These are powerful emotions that aren’t obvious – making them great to centre a campaign around. Gen-Zs are also used to a lower quality of life than their elders – and aren’t expecting that to change anytime soon. By appreciating that, brands can understand how Gen-Zs attitude can be both freeing and depressing.
Emphasising the struggles of the cost-of-living crisis risks exacerbating high levels of anxiety among consumers
Brands walk a tightrope. We see all user categories on TikTok suffer, as financial stress snowballs into high levels of emotional stress, physical ailments and doomsday thoughts. While brands need to acknowledge that these are tough times, too much focus on it may come across as hypocritical (most brands are raising their prices after all) or cynical, going after already money-strapped consumers. So instead of focusing on the cost of living and increasing anxiety among target customers, it may be a better moment to be talking about your brand’s quality and reliability.
Remember that actions speak louder than words
Empathy shouldn’t be used as a comms tool. Instead, brands should approach consumers as people first and find ways to meet their needs. Businesses that can point to concrete measures they are taking to improve people’s lives will fare better.
Take this as a cue to become credible agents of social change
Brands aren’t widely perceived to be working in the interests of the greater good. With plenty of greenwashing, whitewashing and pinkwashing around, few trust brands to act in a socially responsible way. Audiences are highly sensitive to companies’ big talk and limited action, and statistics bear this out. Very few companies are committed to driving social change themselves, for example by becoming B-corps certified. Those who are, however, stand to gain handsomely. Our TikTok analysis shows how brands that have built a reputation as an agent of change can lock hands with TikTok activists lobbying for social change, reaching a vocal and highly influential customer segment in the process.
Invest in the long-term, despite the short-term crisis
Communicating should be seen as an investment, not an expense. Brands which invest in recessions come out stronger and ready for the upturn. If you continue to do quality communications, you’re building your brand even when the opportunity for immediate sale may not be as obvious.