Memes – that funny picture you see across Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, the joke everyone is sharing at work. It’s hysterical! Oh and now there’s a new one from that movie that just came out. You didn’t see it but you understand what the picture is about – everyone does. And on and on it goes. New visual shorthands for jokes, comparisons, and statements. That’s the power of memes. Leveraging them for marketing purposes is hardly novel, but it is incredibly easy to get it wrong. If you want to bring the power of the Internet Hivemind to bear for your advertising campaigns, you need to understand why they work.
Keep reading, by the end of this blog you’ll know how to ride that meme momentum to your own goals!
The idea of memes has a long history before the image macro came along. It’s an anthropology term relating to the concept of ideas, styles, or behavior that is spread throughout a culture by imitation. The term was first coined by Richard Dawkins back in 1976 for his work The Selfish Gene. He used it as a way to discuss evolutionary principles as they apply to the spread of cultural ideas.
The long and short of it? It’s a concept, both visual and verbal, that is spread from person to person through imitation.
Memes are powerful; they have the potential to change the way people think. For the most part, thankfully, memes are just used to spread a laugh and set up a common joke and punchline. But they have power. They can even be weaponized for ill. How are they able to affect such massive change?
Memes work off a shared cultural understanding. Using existing popular media like movies or TV or building off a clear concept, the image creates a context through which the audience views the message of the meme. Two memes could have the same exact captions, but because of the image have drastically different meanings. Let’s use an example really quick.
Note: The more internet savvy folks out there might recognize this second image as the “Daily Struggle” meme and that it is not a good use of this meme format. Don’t sweat it, we’ll get to that later!
We see here two memes that have a similar concept, the idea of a binary choice. The first makes it clear that one of those options is the better choice, worthy of being reckless to make. The second shows a choice that is difficult and causing the decision maker to sweat, which will they choose?!
Same captions, but clearly a different intent. Viewers understand this because they’ve seen thousands of variations of these two setups, and it speaks to them in a familiar way.
All that meaning and intent conveyed in 6 words and a carefully chosen image.
The beauty of memes is that they are created to be shared and, almost universally, to cause a reaction. They generate a laugh with the first people to see it and then get forwarded on to the group chats or the message boards. Those people in turn have their own laugh and share it. And so it goes. A successful meme is propulsive. You can see why that’d be huge for advertising.
To truly leverage the potential of memes you need to understand them. You can’t slap a random tagline onto a picture and hope for it to move the needle. That will do more harm than good!
You don’t want to look like this guy…
No, you want to leverage the existing context of the meme and build on it to your own ends, to appeal to the audience in a familiar manner. Earlier we mentioned that the Daily Struggle meme we used as an example wasn’t quite right. That meme typically features labels to the buttons that are contradictory. But there are more iterations of it. One is that is a clear and easy answer, but that the person is struggling with it makes them the butt of the joke, drawing attention to their inability to choose.
We know, explaining jokes is so funny.
The point of that is this: if you use a meme incorrectly, you’ll get attention for the wrong reasons. You’ll look like an outsider attempting to join in the fun – which, if that’s your brand, then maybe it’ll work for you! For most of us, that’s not the way we want to come across. We want to be a part of the crowd and give the impression of approachability – which in turn creates familiarity and trust. Two huge positives to any business.
Want to be sure you understand the meme correctly before you take your stab at it? Spend some time on a meme archive like KnowYourMeme to get the intent and potential variants of the meme in question. When you understand the format, then you can adapt it to your purpose and not draw unwanted attention.
Ads using these image macro formats might be a more overt attempt to leverage meme potential but memes are nothing new to advertising! Go back 20 years to the late 90s and early 2000s when the Anheuser-Busch Budweiser company created the “Whassup?” Campaign.
The commercials based on a short film were huge, becoming a running joke across the country getting used in film and tv, most famously in the 2001 Scream-parody Scary Movie. Or look at jingles! How many businesses are burned into your brain because of catchy jingles?
Our point? Advertising and memes work off the same understanding, the same principles. Leveraging ‘em to boost your marketing efforts makes a lot of sense. Just make sure you understand what you’re imitating.
Don’t want the hassle of studying the internet? We don’t blame ya! So why not work with an agency for whom it’s a second language?