“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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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!