As the frontman for several touring bands, Brendan Kelly spent much of his youth on the road, often living off of fast food for weeks at a time.
Eventually, he stopped touring and got a job at a prestigious ad firm in Chicago. That’s where he got the idea for one of social media’s most popular parody accounts.
As he tried to come up with ideas for a client, Kelly’s mind wandered to The Matrix. He imagined a company that could offer a “red pill” brand engagement strategy. He envisioned a business providing an unfiltered, honest look at the world, showing “how [expletive] horrendously tragic life actually is,” Kelly said, “you know, how meaningless everything is.”
That’s when Kelly created the hopelessly cynical @Nihilist_Arbys Twitter account.
“It just seemed so impossible and stupid,” Kelly told Business Insider.
Kelly says he primarily created @Nihilist_Arbys to entertain himself, but also as an intellectual experiment to see what an ultra-dark engagement strategy might look like in practice. The account regularly reminds customers of their inevitable deaths, occasionally using extremely vulgar language and harsh imagery to get the point across.It’s crude, cruel, and in poor taste—but it’s also hilarious.
Soon, the account was incredibly popular.
Just a few weeks after starting the parody account, AdWeek noted that @Nihilist_Arbys was “getting a better engagement rate than the real Arby’s.”
This wasn’t the first time Arby’s had been the butt of jokes, as host Jon Stewart roasted the beef sandwich chain regularly (pardon the pun) on The Daily Show. When Stewart retired, Arby’s twitter account famously suggested that the comedian apply for a job selling roast beef sandwiches.
By embracing the hate, Arby’s had turned Jon Stewart’s criticisms into an endorsement. Arby’s CEO Paul Brown wondered if they could also turn the nihilist parody account into an ally.
“Do you write a cease-and-desist letter?” Brown rhetorically asked Business Insider. “The way I look at it is, what kind of person do you want to be a friend with? You don’t want to be a friend with that kind of a person who’s defensive and you can’t joke around.”
Arby’s tried to contact Kelly.
Eventually, Kelly agreed to be interviewed by AdWeek, putting a face to the parody Twitter account.
When Arby’s got a hold of his contact information, the fast food chain sent a special envoy to Kelly’s workplace to meet the man behind the nihilistic rants. They brought him a puppy and a bag of roast beef sandwiches, along with a note that read:
“Cheer up, buddy. You live in a world with puppies … and sandwiches.”
Kelly shared a picture of the interaction on his personal Twitter account.
Arby’s has continued to embrace the parody, poking fun at itself while promoting sandwiches and various other products. Ultimately, Kelly gave them some free advertising—which was, in a way, exactly what he was trying to do in the first place.