Memes are more than a fad. They have become legitimate means of expression, communi- cating an entire cultural idea or theme in a singlevisual (words, sounds, pictures, gestures, etc.) and spreading from person to person.
Originally coined in 1976 by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins to describe the cultural counterpart of a gene, the term ‘meme’ saw its usage evolve over time, accompanying the expansion of Internet: first reserved to forum users, memes became popular with the launch of YouTube in 2005 and exploded with the social media revolution and the introduction of GIFs.
Today, these self-explanatory symbols turnshort parts of movies, sitcoms or cartoons on theirheads by putting them in a new, surprising andfunny context thanks to smart captioning. In that sense, memes encapsulate digital natives’ love of pop culture, along with their perspective on life,sense of irony and natural mastery of virality.
This relatability is what provokes an immediate reaction from people: there’s a meme for everything, and everyone can share them. In that sense, memes are not only a representation of life; they are also attributes of a community.
As such, they can also be seen as the simplestyet most creative digital art yet. No wonder the communication industry is intrigued.
KNOW YOUR MEME. While advertising creatives can spend weeks devising a smart campaign, hoping to reach their desired consumer targets, untold numbers of anonymous Internet users make millions of memes that achieve that exact same objective just for fun. What’s more, memes are free for us to share for whatever reason and in whichever way we choose: to express an emotionin public, make friends laugh, convey a coded message to a group and more.
However, not all memes are created equal. Their longevity can vary from a few days to years, and their propagation can be instant or take months. In a surprising way, a 2013 study on quickmeme.com has shown that not only do memes compete for attention; they sometimes collaborate to achieve greater survival, feeding off one another. For instance, the “They did surgery on a grape” meme, referring to a hospital’s video demonstration of surgical equipment in 2010, started off seven years later with a simple tweet showing an edited version of the video with the caption “They did surgery on a grape,” which was picked up by other memes layering more “They did surgery on a grape” captions, before being turned into countless parodies and other memes – which prolonged its own life.
For a meme to be ‘dank’ (‘cool’ in Internet lingo), it needs to be so unique, strange or nonsensical that it becomes funny. The “Who killed Hannibal?” meme, for example, uses an image macro from a 2013 TV show skit about climate change, labelingthe characters differently and substituting theoriginal dialogue with variations of “Why wouldX do Y?” It first became an ‘exploitable’ meme in 2018 when a Reddit user modified it to post a 9/11 joke, to huge success and mimicry.
This nonsensical aspect and the irony of many modern memes – along with the creative license that they afford – is not unlike the voluntary absurdity of postmodern art. They play on multiple layers of meaning and sometimes use references only understandable to those knowing the previous memes they refer to. ‘Deep-fried’ and ‘surreal’ memes, for example, are specifically designed to confuse the non-initiated.
MEMES GO WRONG. Keeping in mind that Reddit and 4chan are the digital spaces where many memes are born, it is not surprising that some of these memes are associated with unsavory people and concepts. These extremely popular platforms have also been home to online communities embracing politically incorrect ideas. The most famous ones are, without a doubt, “Pepe the Frog” and “Troll face.”
The anthropomorphic frog character Pepe was first created in 2005 by Matt Furie for a comics series. The ‘random’ board of 4chan popularized it in 2008 with the expression “Feels good man” as a reaction image, but it gained traction in lateryears when singers like Katy Perry and Nicki Minaj used it in various situations. With this growing popularity, 4chan users developed variants such as “rare Pepes”, “smug Pepes” or “poo poo pee pees,” but also started describing the people using the meme outside of 4chan as ‘normies.’By 2015, Pepe was the most retweeted meme onTwitter, but that same year, its recuperation bywhite supremacists from the alt-right movementstarted drawing attention. An object of much controversy, Pepe remains very popular today, despite its hate symbol status. In 2017, it was used by fast food chain Wendy’s and clothesretailer Zara, with intense backlash in both cases– which shows how appropriating memes can be tricky for brands.
THE MARKETING POTENTIAL OF MEMES. On paper, memes are a perfect marketing tool: they’re cheap; they spread on their own; in a very short time, they implant a potent message that is repeated over and over again; they break through the information overload; they’re neither ads nor branded content; and they have real entertainment value.
However, creating a meme that will spread means the same thing as devising a ‘viral campaign’: you can try but there’s no guarantee it will work.
That’s the bet Paramount Farms has been taking since as far back as 2009, in one of the first meme based marketing strategies: to promote its Wonderful Pistachio product, the brand opted for a quirky, provocative approach using the hugely popular “Keyboard Cat,” “AnnoyingOrange” and “Honey Badger” memes. It paid off: Wonderful Pistachio’s sales surged by triple digits in 2010, and by 134 percent in 2011.
In 2013, online news platform Mashable went even further by capitalizing on two popular memes at the same time, resulting in an epic face-off between “Oscar the Grouch” and “Grumpy Cat.”
Both these brands successfully used existing memes, which means they had kept their ear to the ground to keep up with the trends and had fully understood the memes before using them.
Obviously, to create a meme from scratch is much more difficult, requiring a brand to come up with an idea that the notoriously picky online audience will accept and recognize. That is what Heinz achieved in 2018 by working directly with the website memes.com. Building on Internet users’ obsession with arguing, the famous ketchup brand asked people to use hashtags and graphics to answer this crucial question: “If you had to decide right now if a tomato is a fruit or a vegetable, which would you choose?”The custom-made meme quadrupled its original goal of 1 million impressions.
This all goes to show that memes can certainly play a massive role in a smart marketing campaign, provided that they’re done by digital natives (and not by people trying too hard to look cool); relatable to the target audience; and timely (don’t go using a meme that’s not trending anymore).
IMITATION AS ART? Considering how memes’ entire design and even purpose are linked to imitation, it’s fair to ask if they can technically be creative.
Yes, wrote sociology researcher Juliana Brunello in her research paper Internet Memesand Everyday Creativity. “It is clear that Internet memes have a memetic element in themselves, namely, an element of imitation. But this is not all. Memes ‘evolve’ in a certain way […] What makes them ‘evolve’ is the creative work of individuals.”
Brunello said that memes “are, for certain,no examples of high arts, and neither of scientificinnovation. They involve, nevertheless a more ‘mundane’ and ‘ordinary’ kind of creativity […]often referred to as ‘everyday-creativity’” – a formof creativity that is not bound to ‘artistic’ quality criteria, as opposed to the canonized high arts.
In that sense, memes perfectly represent our instant-gratification, digital times: isn’t the whole idea behind the Internet to replace expert or elite gatekeepers by like-minded communities for the circulation and validation of ideas?
And anyway, as social media theorist Clay Shirky wrote in Cognitive Surplus: Creativity andGenerosity in a Connected Age, “The stupidest possible creative act is still a creative act.”
This articles has been published in Communicate’s September print edition.