Meet the Twisted, Brilliant Copywriter Behind Twitter’s Nihilist Arby’s

A case study in branding dark humor

Headshot of Christopher Heine

Brendan Kelly is the bassist and singer for Epitaph Records' punk band The Lawrence Arms, has appeared on The Daily Show, pens a fairly popular blog called Bad Sandwich Chronicles and has carved out a career as an advertising copywriter in recent years at different agencies in the Chicago area.

That'd all play pretty well at a class reunion, wouldn't it? Well, there's more.

Eight months ago, Kelly started a phenomenon called Nihilist Arby's, a darkly comical Twitter account that has attracted more than 100,000 followers. The achievement is definitely worth another paragraph or two on his Wikipedia page or—to borrow some of his fictional character's spirit—IN HIS OBITUARY, whenever his inevitable demise occurs on some sad, meaningless day.

The 38-year-old chatted with Adweek about the origin of Nihilist Arby's

"Twitter is such a great medium, but it's misunderstood, generationally," he explained. "It's like an awesome newspaper where everyone can customize what they get by following certain entities, whether they want comedy, politics or naked chicks. But then you have these dumb corporations that just don't get it, you know? And fast-food brands unbelievably perpetuate the most terrible of ideas."

Kelly said he began thinking about how funny it would be if a social media manager for a restaurant chain "just lost it, after sending out yet another tweet about something [inane] like a new dipping sauce. And I said to whoever I was speaking to at the time, 'It should be called something incredibly stupid like Nihilist Arby's.'"

Cue animated light bulb above his head—a-a-a-a-nd scene! 

So he launched the account in January, and Kelly's brand of absurdist, death-and-doom tweeting quickly garnered around 250 followers. "And then one day, I sent out a tweet and went to lunch," he recalled. "When I got back, I had, like, 13,000 followers. And it's just snowballed from there."

He didn't go to Arby's for lunch that day—though he's got nothing against the roast-beef slinger. In fact, when asked if the fast-food chain had contacted him, he sounded slightly disappointed that the company hadn't reached out.

Maybe its marketers should. At one point this year, per data from Simply Measured, Nihilist Arby's was getting better Twitter engagement than the real Arby's. 

"[It] is a great example of successfully catering content to your target audience," remarked Kevin Shively, Simply Measured's content marketing manager. "[He has] capitalized off creating a witty, irreverent personality and in turn seen continued growth and increasing engagement for a parody account—something that's usually very hard to accomplish." 

Bill Carter, a partner at digital agency Fuse, added: "Parodies work with youth culture. Whether it's Stephen Colbert, The Onion, or now Nihilist Arby's, teens and young adults always love a satirical voice willing to take a shot at a powerful foe."

Kelly doesn't make any money off Nihilist Arby's, yet it doesn't sound like he's going to give up his labor-of-love anytime soon. He tries to tweet once a day, targeting the lunch crowd at around 11:30 a.m. The punk rocker said he avoids "forcing" humorous copy onto his fans while trying to capture culturally relevant and timely jokes that fit his brand. 

"I am not cranking them out just to do it," Kelly said. "If it doesn't make me laugh, I don't tweet it."

On that note, Simply Measured mined his tweets from the last several weeks, and the top 10 performers—when it comes to engagement metrics—are below.

While a few of them are probably too edgy for brands to steal marketing wisdom from, others will likely prove to be instructive for millennial-minded practitioners, and the tweets collectively paint a picture of how Kelly created a social-media sensation. It's hard to argue with thousands of retweets and favorites. 

So enjoy. (Eat Arby's. Then, die.)




















@Chris_Heine Christopher Heine is a New York-based editor and writer.