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TikTok targets nuns, veterans and ranchers in marketing blitz

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NEW YORK – In a television commercial, Sister Monica Clare, a nun in northern New Jersey, walks through a church bathed in sunlight, sits in a pew and crosses herself. Their message: TikTok is a force for good.

“Thanks to TikTok, I have created a community where people can feel safe to ask questions about spirituality,” she says in the ad.

Ms. Clare is one of several fans of TikTok — along with drawling ranchers, a Navy veteran named Patriotic Kenny and entrepreneurs — the company is highlighting in commercials as it faces intense scrutiny in Washington, DC

“TikTok definitely has a brand problem in the United States,” Ms. Clare, 58, said in an interview. “Most people you talk to, especially people over 60, will say TikTok is just a bunch of superficial garbage. They don't use it. You don't understand the content.

“It's very smart of TikTok to say, 'No, that's not us – we're much more than that,'” she added.

That appears to be the idea driving TikTok's multi-million dollar marketing assault on television and rival social platforms across the country – tagged #KeepTikTok – as the Senate considers a bill that would force the company's Chinese owner, ByteDance, to do so Sell ​​the app or face a national ban. Many lawmakers from both parties said the app could put American users' private data at risk or be used as a Chinese propaganda tool.

Since the House of Representatives voted for the bill on March 13, the company has spent at least US$3.1 million (S$4.2 million) on advertising time for commercials running through April, according to data from AdImpact, a media tracking firm should . According to the data, some of the places most targeted are the battleground presidential election states of Pennsylvania, Nevada and Ohio. TikTok also recently spent more than $100,000 on Facebook and Instagram ads, according to Meta's Ad Library.

TikTok said it was spending more than AdImpact's data showed, but the company did not provide further details. When asked about its promotional efforts, Michael Hughes, a spokesman for TikTok, said: “We believe the general public should know that the government is trying to trample on the free speech rights of 170 million Americans and 7 million small businesses in the world.” to destroy the entire country.”

The ads are part of a broader lobbying campaign by TikTok to reshape the company's perception among lawmakers and the public. She has been vocal in her opposition to the bill, which she has framed as an outright ban, saying she has not and would not share any data with Beijing, nor would she allow any government to influence her algorithmic video recommendations for users to watch .

ByteDance spent $8.7 million on lobbying last year, according to OpenSecrets, a nonprofit research group. Her internal team and various external companies try to influence lawmakers. It has mobilized its large user base to contact their representatives, although some of these efforts may have backfired. And Shou Chew, CEO of TikTok, is co-chair of this spring's Met Gala, where TikTok will be the main sponsor.

TikTok began sharing the stories of everyday Americans like Clare and Patriotic Kenny last year through a campaign called “TikTok Sparks Good.” Much of this effort appeared to be aimed at a conservative audience. An estimated $19 million was spent on television advertising, most of which ran on news programs, particularly Fox News, according to data from iSpot.tv, a TV measurement company. According to the company, TikTok aired more than a dozen commercials during Republican presidential debates or debate-related shows last year. Ads promoting the creators of last year's campaign are still running.

“It's such a classic tactic,” said Cait Lamberton, a marketing professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. “You take an idea, put it in someone’s mouth and allow you to connect with that person.”

She added: “TikTok presents itself as a brand that stands for freedom and democratization of communication and, frankly, many values ​​that most people feel very comfortable with.”

The American Civil Liberties Union, which views the law as a threat to First Amendment rights, ran Facebook and Instagram ads in March that linked to an objection letter that people were asked to send to their senators. A spokesperson for the organization said it has no formal partnership or fundraising relationship with TikTok or ByteDance.

Supporters of the bill are also placing advertisements. Newly formed nonprofit groups led by conservatives whose supporters are unclear are airing television commercials and running ads on social media.

One of those groups, the American Parents Coalition, is led by Alleigh Marré, the founder of a public relations firm and spokesman for the Trump administration's Department of Health and Human Services. In a March 20 press release, she promised “a seven-figure awareness campaign” called “TikTok Is Poison.”

The intensity of the fight was clearly evident to Clare. She said she was happy when her commercial aired, but was soon surprised to receive hate mail and even a few angry phone calls.

“It was this rush of, 'Oh, so exciting,' and then, 'Oh, what crap,'” she said. “It really came from people who were committed to the idea that China was spying on us through TikTok, from people who have probably never used social media in their lives.”

She said she was confident TikTok's marketing efforts, including the ad, would help convey a different message about the app. (The company donated $500 to her monastery in Mendham, New Jersey, for her participation, she said.)

“There is a huge community of people doing good on TikTok,” she said. NEW YORK TIMES