Memes, “viral” and advertising

This intended as a bit of a memes 101, originally written for a senior management man who wasn’t quite sure what all the fuss was about.  So this little article was born, because everyone deserves to understand our little meme friends.

A meme can be any idea that gains popularity, and it’s a slightly different take on what the traditional marketing guys may label as “buzz” or “hype” as it’s (usually) user-generated content that acts in a dialogue with the complex inter-textual network of a peer group or hyperlocal community. The most visible “memes” usually take form of appropriated images with captions: perhaps it’s to make a pithy comment on issues, express pet annoyances or just done for a laugh… some are quite layered and clever, others are not. There is not one main source for image memes. Anyone who has something (or nothing) to say can make one. And anything can become a “mainstream” meme.

image: meme - High Expectations Asian Father

High Expectations Asian Father

Most memes don’t explain themselves very well — you have to know how to read them, and you most likely have to look at several examples before you “get” the joke or the internal language. However, memes are increasingly entering mainstream dialogues and take many forms. Christina Xu and Christian Twang started ROFLCon in 2008, a deep dive conference into internet culture. They’re unofficially considered by many to be the official internet-meme mum and dad, the ones who started it all.  But, that’s the beauty of memes, they can’t really be owned by anyone.  They are live beasts that constantly evolve and by their nature are uncontrollable and roam free….

Some examples of iconic meme formats are below, the text on the images are changed by anyone to say anything :

Futurama Fry

Futurama Fry

image: Philosoraptor


I Can Has Cheezburger and FailBlog are also good examples of meme culture flourishing and mainstreaming, in our advertising world we can see some brands starting to try and leverage meme references:

Let’s take a look at Nyan cat:

Nyan cat or Pop Tart cat is a brilliant low-fi meme that has had many cross platform incarnations.  If you have the time, check out this excellent article on Nyan cat’s proliferation.

Nyan Cat makes an appearance in a Sprint 4G Nexus commercial entitled, “Cats,” with references to the cat obsessed I Can Has Cheezburger culture

Another commercially appropriated meme is the Double Rainbow video. This was meme-d by thousands of people into different formats and collectively watched in its different incarnations by billions more.  Here’s the original video that started the furor:

This video has been commercially used by a number of companies, one of which is a Windows Live Photo Gallery commercial (2010) where Paul Vasquez and his (highly meme-d) Double Rainbow appear front and centre:

As with any ‘celebrity’ endorsement, there are always the potential backlash issues.  One which we should be particularly aware of when using memes commercially is the Gestalt concept of figure and ground… and the pursuant angst that can result from it’s misuse.  Use of memes must be respectful and not over commercialised, lest it lose the very audience it sought in the first place.  Gestalt Figure/Ground theories are a great way of exploring this ‘respectful commercialisation’.  Studies show that placing products in the forefront and the cultural object of interest in the background can lead to very negative reactions from consumers.  This occurs as they can easily feel that the brand is obfuscating or destroying an experience that used to be fun and enjoyable.  We can see this happening quite often with product placements that force characters to change their iconic habits (It will be interesting to see how Heineken being James Bond’s favourite new drink works out) and we can see this happening with memes being overused.

Meme culture is inane looking from the outside. While easily consumed (and sometimes hilarious) ‘inanity’ is more than half a meme’s appeal, popular memes can also have a strong link to (hyperlocal) internet hives and the “multiple internets” that co-exist globally.


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