For as long as there has been advertising there has been mistrust of advertising — the subversive suspicion that promotional media is the proverbial rain on every great parade. For decades it has forcibly interrupted television shows, radio music marathons and panoramic highway horizons while also filling newspapers and, in some cases, making opening mailboxes a dreaded and tedious affair.
And yet, despite all this, advertising has usually been the necessary antagonist that we as consumers traditionally depend on for the very mediums we chastise it for interrupting. From the internet to television and from radio to the sports industry… the world as we know it has been built on advertising.
But in the digital age, that dynamic between consumer and advertiser has undergone significant upheaval.
With the advent of the “always online” consumer, obstacles like banner blindness and the use of ad blocking technology have made the task of reaching the general public far more difficult than ever before. Today even a semi-savvy internet browser can decide when and where (if ever) they are served any kind of promotional messaging. Similarly thanks to torrents, downloading and streaming they can enjoy their favourite movies, music and television shows for months at a time without ever coming across a commercial. As a result the challenge for modern brands and marketers is no longer simply about forcing a promotional message in front of an audience, but rather about finding effective ways to convince a consumer to allow it an audience at all.
These days, achieving this tremendous feat requires embracing new platforms, humour and the internal logic of “internet culture” to build better, more compelling and more interesting advertising. The adoption of internet memes in mainstream marketing is one particular poignant example of this concept in practice.
Wait a second… “Meme”?
In 1976, Richard Dawkins coined the phrase “meme” (in his book The Selfish Gene) to describe an idea, cultural phenomenon or behaviour that can be expressed and communicated simply and quickly. The word itself drew inspiration from the Greek word “mimeme” but instead was meant to be applied to evolutionary discussions. At the time Dawkins had no way of predicting the meteoric rise of the internet, social networks or Success Kid and Good Guy Greg… but he had nevertheless laid the groundwork for their classification.
Today, an internet meme is a variation of this concept that can be easily communicated or spread rapidly from person to person over the web. They’re ideally suited to social media (Facebook, Twitter), social news/bulletin boards (Reddit, 4chan) and forums and can take the form of hyperlinks, images, animated gifs, videos, hashtags or even pervasive cultural “in-jokes” like deliberately misspelled words (“wat” instead of “what” or “stahp” instead of “stop”).
Memes also have the incredible ability to evolve rapidly and spread infectiously. As a case in point, the rise of “lol” (internet slang for “laughing out loud”) has since given way to numerous off-shoots (particularly in gamer culture) like “lul”, “lawl”, “lolz”, “lololol”, “lulz” or “lool”. These may seem like arbitrary modulations on the same note, but each has its own subtly unique meaning.
Types of Memes
Memes can be classified in two key ways: their transmission vectors and their longevity. Pervasive internet culture/history in-jokes (such as the broken English of the video game Zero Wing) function based on referential humour, and can be expressed even as simply as deliberately typing broken English phrases like “make your time” (a reference to the game) on a message board or taking a photo of some bizarre activity in the real world (see planking, owling etc.) and sharing it online. Meanwhile, other memes live expressly in the form of image macros that can be effortlessly tweaked and remade using an editing program or an online “meme generator”. Lastly, more amorphous concepts like “YOLO” (you only live once) can be communicated with image macros, Twitter hashtags or viral videos.
When it comes to how long a meme can last, however, not all are created equal. Some, like the “McKayla is Not Impressed” meme (which involved placing an iconic picture of the US Athlete McKayla Maroney’s disappointed face on a 2012 Olympic Podium in a myriad of comical contexts), spread like wildfire after a high-profile event and go on to spawn thousands of iterations in a very short period of time…only to fizzle out soon after.
Similar examples of high intensity, short duration memes like this would include Angelina’s leg from the 2012 Oscars or Clint Eastwood’s Empty Chair from the 2012 RNC. By contrast, long-standing memes like “Rage Comics” and “Over 9000” have maintained their popularity for several years and, as a result, have become deeply ingrained in the everyday lexicon of internet culture.
What is Memevertising?
At their core, memes are the embodiment of everything good advertising should be: highly memorable, clever (if used properly), easily communicated and absurdly contagious. With that in mind it’s no wonder that more and more advertisers and brands have been leaping at the opportunity to incorporate memes into their marketing. The advantage of this kind of advertising lies in its potential to inhabit the same conversational wavelength of internet culture – something that many brands and advertisers already struggle with.
The first thing to note about memevertising (aside from its inherent risks and potential rewards), is that it is not all alike. In fact, it can typically be broken down into two different approaches: meme hijacking and memescaping. The former is the most common approach and occurs when a brand or agency hijacks a meme in progress in order to allow their brand image or messaging to hitch a ride on its existing (or upcoming) popularity. This can take the form of a commercial, a display ad or a branded adaptation of an already successful image macro.
The trick to this approach is identifying an appropriate (and potentially relevant) meme or viral event before it becomes passé or irrelevant or at the least very early on it its rise (as was the case with the recent Harlem Shake phenomenon). This requires having employees in your organization who have a finger on the pulse of internet culture and social media, or at the very least, a representative agency that does. Few things can be more devastating than jumping on popular meme without properly understanding how it works or where it is in its lifecycle.
Another form of memevertising is called memescaping which involves creating an entire meme from scratch (with an accompanying brand association). It’s not always intentional (indeed many attempts to create branded memes fail spectacularly), but when it succeeds it can inspire thousands of user-made tributes, adaptations and unique creations that generate brand impressions for years.
With all this in mind, let’s take a look at a few successful examples of memevertising.
The Hall of Fame
1. Chuck Norris, World of Warcraft
Chuck Norris jokes are an example of a meme that was as popular offline as on, but when marketing an expansion for their smash hit online game called World of Warcraft, game development company Blizzard Entertainment appropriated them in their comprehensive strategy. The result was a memejacked video commercial that went viral, received extensive media coverage and aligned perfectly with their ideal demographic: gamers. The ad stuck within the internal logic (or, framework) of the existing Chuck Norris meme and it fight within the overall brand of the Warcraft universe without much stretching. They knew the audience and found a humorous way to reach it.
In 2006, a marketing firm known as Euro RSCG Worldwide devised an advertising campaign for the beer brand Dos Equis. The ads featured actor Jonathan Goldsmith as “the most interesting man in the world” in a manner similar to the Chuck Norris meme mentioned above. As a case of accidental memescaping, it was a smashing success. By 2013, the ad has inspired tens of thousands of user-created image macros which commonly the format of “I don’t always do X, but when I do I Y”… each with a bottle of Dos Equis and their spokesperson featured prominently. As a result it is perhaps an example of one of the most successful advertisements of all time.
When Greenpeace decided to take their protest against multinational gas and oil company Shell, they decided that creating a satirical memes on a spoof website was the most effective way to get their point across. They were right.
In order to draw attention to their cause and point of view, Greenpeace created ArcticReady.com and filled it with fictional mission statements, damning (but cleverly satirical) statistics and scathing image parodies of Shell’s “Let’s Go” campaign. They also invited visitors to create their own crowdsourced meme submissions. The result was a staggeringly effective hoax (and memescaping example) that generated significant media coverage and no small number of user-generated contributions.
Fortunately for Greenpeace, Shell (wisely) decided not to pursue legal action.
When Canadian singer-songwriter Carly Rae Jepsen released her hit single “Call Me Maybe” in 2011, it’s hard to imagine that anyone could have known how much of a viral phenomenon it would become. After being mentioned positively by Justin Bieber, however, the stage was set for the catchy song to explode in popularity. What resulted was a veritable explosion of covers, parodies and tribute videos to an extent redolent of Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used to Know”, Rebecca Black’s “Friday” and Psy’s “Gagnam Style”.
What was particularly remarkable in the case of “Call Me Maybe”, however, was how quickly some iconic brands (like the Miami Dolphins or Abercrombie & Fitch) were able to leap into the fray with tribute videos of their own in order to make the most of the song’s incredible viral energy. Sesame Street was one such brand, and its video cover was a colossal triumph. 13 million views later, the video is a fantastic example of how memejacking done well can be a brilliant strategy.
The age of the static impression and the one-ad-fits-all-mediums approach to advertising is over. For over 17 years the presiding wisdom for most internet advertising has been a half-measure approach of taking radio, television and print methodology and ham-fisting it online with banner ads and one-way conversation commercials. That can no longer be the answer. Internet/social consumers have instead moved on to instantaneous dialogue in the form of pocket ideas that can change, grow and evolve rapidly. For some brands that may seem a daunting obstacle too overwhelming to overcome, but it should instead seem like an enormous opportunity.
Understanding internet culture and the ever-changing nature of how it evolves, grows and spreads is infinitely valuable. For while it may be tempting to write-off something so seemingly trivial as image macros, hashtags or pop culture parodies… with every passing year a great portion of the consumer population is made up of those who grew up, communicate and share their ideas with these very mediums.
In the right hands, and intelligently aligned with the right marketing objective, memes may just be one of the best friends your brand never knew it had.
Be sure to check out the rest of our “Brands, The Internet & You” series: