Memes: The Voice of the Generation?

“Cash me ousside, how bow dah?”. If this phrase looks like nothing but a poorly-spelled and incoherent blurb, then congratulations, you have either been living under a rock or have not logged on to the Internet over the past month. Or perhaps, the way you use the Internet is completely different from every one else and you only look at very specific content, shielding yourself from anything else that might appear on the web. But if you know that this phrase belongs to a teenage girl with questionable attitude and behavior, who appeared on the Dr. Phil show in 2016, then you have been exposed to at least one meme in your life. And if you are actively using any form of social media, chances are you have been exposed to more than one meme on any given day.

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Memes Everywhere

According to Merriam-Webster Dictionary, a meme is “an idea, behavior, or style that spreads from person to person within a culture”. The term meme was coined in 1970s by Richard Dawkins, who used it in his famous book on evolution, stating how significant memes were in affecting and defining human behavior and cultural evolution. And while memes have been around for a long time, the Internet and social networks have given a rise to a whole new sub-category of memes – the Internet memes (which for many nowadays, are the only “known” type of memes).

So what are memes exactly? On the Internet, memes come in many forms and shapes, but most often they are images or short video clips that get extremely popular within an extremely short period of time, and before you know it, they start appearing all over social media. The popularity of the meme is fueled by the massive sharing by the users, and, in a lot of cases, the Internet community adds to it by creating different versions of the meme in question. In case of a viral meme that is an image, user generated content can range from image edits to new captions. In case of a video, parodies or mashups spur within days or even hours after the original video becomes a meme. Sometimes, memes can even give a rise to a movement – from charitable causes like the Ice Bucket Challenge to a fun, but aimless Mannequin Challenge.

 

How do I meme?

When a man in a red sweater appeared on TV during the 2016 United States Presidential Debate and asked the presidential candidates a question in order to decide on who to vote for, within minutes the screen shot of Ken Bone, wearing his fuzzy red sweater started making its rounds on the Internet. It was captioned with different questions far removed from that originally asked. Ken Bone was photoshopped onto various backgrounds. Jokes using world play on his name were posted all over.

Seemingly out of nowhere, Ken Bone became a meme. The image of Ken Bone in a red sweater that gave rise to the meme is a perfect characteristics that gives images and videos the “meme”-quality:

  1. Uniqueness

For a video or an image to get noticed, they have to stand out. Whether it’s a red sweater, an original way to sprinkle salt, or a basketball legend crying during a speech, there is something that is unique about the meme, separating it from thousands of other content we see every day.

  1. Relatability11590722

Whether it’s Kermit the Frog sipping a cup of tea (and simultaneously boosting the popularity of Lipton) and saying some things that are not usually said out loud in order not to hurt anyone’s feelings (but that’s none of my business), or the Obama and Biden duo hilariously “prepping” the White House for Trump, the memes ring a bell and bring a smile to a face for a very vast and diverse audience on the Internet – again, adding to the memes’ popularity.

 

  1. Sharability

Although some of the memes can sometimes contain expletives or NSFW content, the most popular ones are usually innocent, based on cartoon characters like Sponge Bob or Arthur, or seemingly random and unsuspecting kids. Even given the low censorship level on the Internet, the acceptability of such content for all age groups is a sure way to guarantee its viral spread.

 

Memes & busine$$

In addition to all other characteristics, and with the ability to spread far beyond the Internet itself, Internet memes have become a cultural phenomenon, in line with the Dawkins’ theory. They grab our attention, bring a smile to our faces, and have he ability to make us click “Like” and “Share” – the two buttons any marketer wants to be clicked the most.

In the era of cluttered newsfeeds and increasing numbers of apps that require our attention, generating engagement on Social Media is a difficult and expensive task. Popular memes, however, are like self-driving cars in a sense that they drive themselves to popularity, gaining likes and shares along the way. Knowing how efficient they are, it is surprising how they are not used by the brands and businesses more often. In one of the most successful examples of branded memes, rapper Drake released several album covers and a music video with hilarious dance moves. All of them became incredibly popular memes, and translated to incredibly successful album sales for Drake. Most recently, Wendy’s has succeeded in turning the screenshots of their Twitter feed into a meme.

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However, most other brands usually go the opposite route, choosing to use memes in order to relate to their audience on social media. Turning a brand into a meme can be tricky – since a huge part of the meme’s popularity rests on the additional user generated content, it is understandable why brands would be hesitant to put their images out for the world to potentially make fun of. On the other hand, if successful, a meme can generate hundreds of millions of impressions and conversations for the brand in a very, very short amount of time. As for now, most brands are either reluctant or unsuccessful in generating their own memes, no matter how powerful of a tool they can potentially be.

Do you think memes would hurt or contribute to the brand value? Or should it be left to the wider Internet community to decide what will or will not become a meme? Let me know what you think in the comments below!

10 comments

  1. Awesome post! I agree that memes, with some luck along the way, can generate a lot of buzz for brands and create a load of brand personality. I think companies have a hard time creating successful memes because there is no algorithm or recipe to follow that will ensure an image or video will go viral. Though, maybe someone will come up with a way to create guaranteed viral ads in the future.

  2. jordanpanza29 · ·

    I think it is interesting how fast memes are created. For example with the Oscars last night. Within moments it seemed that the mistake of calling the wrong winner had been formed into multiple different memes. One of the similarities between all of these memes of the wrong winner was the lack of trying. It was easy to tell no one was trying to push their products or create a winning meme. Instead it was just an on the go reaction to a mistake. I believe thats why people like memes- because they are not serious. That is why I believe it is so difficult for companies to use memes for self benefit.
    Like everything, I also see memes as a negative. For example it normalizes making fun of others. Whether it be their looks, something they said or an event they were involved in, most of these memes could be seen as making fun of others. Obviously this is not with every meme- but I do believe it is easy for the line from funny to cruel to be passed.

  3. I’m glad you made the distinction between memes and Internet memes, as the concept that Dawkins put forth back in the day are drastically different what we see on our newsfeeds today. I think that it is alright for companies to rely on the “hot meme of the moment” on social media sometimes, but they ultimately should focus on developing a unique online branding. You mentioned Wendy’s snarky Twitter feed, and I’ve also left comments on blogs and on my Twitter before talking up Arby’s social media game – they use papercraft art projects to combine existing fandoms (often very niche ones such as cult-classic videogames and marching bands, for example), and this strategy seems to be very successful. Ultimately, I believe memes are a double-edged sword for businesses, and should be used but not overused. Great post!

  4. isabel_calo1 · ·

    It is so true that some companies feel that there is no recipe to meme so they don’t know how to do it. Most memes are better when they are spontaneous and in the moment because they are so much funnier. But I completely agree that meme can even help companies brand for free and even joke about themselves.

  5. I consider myself a fairly active social media user, and I may have to re-evaluate somethings in my life as I had never seen that first meme before. It’s truly amazing how catchy some of the memes are and it just shows you that there’s no one size fits all way to categorize what can become a meme. But they are truly such an important part of social media now that it’s difficult to imagine the internet without it!

  6. Excellent post! I really think that there is no such thing as bad publicity. Many brands would pay thousands of dollars to show their ads to a large audience, but memes become viral at zero cost and they reach huge audiences simply because they are funny. For example, watching the Oscars a couple of nights ago, I have to admit that I was a little skeptical about their “mistake” on the last Oscar. Evidently, such a mistake brings plenty of attention to the event and gives material for all those trolls out there to start working on new memes. I might be jumping to conclusions, but as social media users we should stop to consider what is true and what is simply an intent to become viral.

  7. benrmcarthur · ·

    It’s an interesting thought to ponder how memes will play into brand value. Moving forward, a lot of pressure will be put into PR of companies because at the end of the day, their actions online can be a make or break for their product. To your point of how to meme, I think another important characteristic of memes revolves around how no meme human intentionally tries to become a meme in the first place. There a certain beauty to how innocent a person may try to be only to let the internet soil their image forever as a meme. But as soon as people try too hard to be a meme, it dies out. For example, K. Bone became overkill eventually when he turned for a profit. I think this ties back to brand value as well. Businesses will be walking a fine line to embracing the meme culture and possibly facing rejection for exploiting its true nature.

  8. GREAT post! I love how you provided background on the meme and what it means beyond the context in which the term is now used in regards to internet content. I was actually showing a meme to my mother the other day that I thought was funny but she didn’t understand why Kermit was the featured image of the meme because “he has nothing to do with the joke.” I tried explaining that that’s the entire point, but she couldn’t grasp what I was trying to explain. Clearly it is a generational thing that some people just don’t get! I think brands could take a stab at memes for marketing but it would be very easy to offend other brands or people as well as to come across as negative. That would be the major challenge in my eyes for a marketing company using memes to generate revenue.

  9. Nice job with this post! I recognized all of the memes you had mentioned above. I think the best part about memes is it allows us to never take the internet all that seriously. They provide us a chance to laugh and enjoy social media in a place that often seems all too serious. My personal favorite is the Kermit the Frog drinking tea with the Lipton logo. I wonder how much money in advertising that Lipton received for free with this meme going viral.

  10. We’ll be talking about this tonight!

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