The web is littered with hugely popular internet memes of varying quality and even more failed attempts. However, most of us would probably have difficulty defining just what an internet meme is. Therefore before discussing their use in advertising, it is worth considering the history of memes (For are more in depth discussion, see Patrick Davison’s ‘The language of internet memes’.)
The term meme was first coined by Richard Dawkins, who saw it as a key factor in how society evolves. For Dawkins, memes are to culture what genes are to genetics.
In modern culture the term meme is usually used to refer to an internet meme, which can be defined as ‘a piece of culture, usually a joke, which gains influence through online transmissions’. Compared to their offline counterparts, internet memes spread more quickly and take a more permanent, easily replicable form. This is because internet technology enables memes to be shared and viewed instantly by an almost limitless number of people as many times as they want. This makes them ideal for viral advertising.
Memes can be mutated
A meme can be broken down into 3 components – the ideal, the manifestation and the behaviour. The ideal refers to the message it conveys. The manifestation is the observable form it takes. And the behaviour is the action taken by individuals to service a meme such as the manipulation of a particular photograph. Memes are commonly manipulated in this way. Take this meme based off the character Fry from the television show Futurama. The manifestation of this meme is taken form the following clip:
Its first use was in a new manifestation of a different meme – “I see what you did there”.
From there, this image was taken and manipulated into a new manefistation. The behaviour of internet users, therefore led to the develop of the image into its own meme by proliferating the following manifestation to express various ideals:
Memes and Advertising
Coming back to how memes can be used by advertisers, there are two main ways advertisers can harness the power of memes: By creating their own memes, or by hijacking currently popular memes to sell their product.
There are a few companies that have managed to create their own memes due to highly successful ads. Here are a couple of examples:
Old Spice reinvented itself with this commercial, which went viral and spawned a bunch of related memes. It’s success was due to its over the top humour, memorable lines and the ease with which it could be parodied.
Rhonda and Ketut
Also gaining notoriety for its humour and mockability online was AAMI’s ‘better drivers deserve to be rewarded’ campaign featuring Rhonda and Ketut.
While its debatable wether or not the memification of these ads was deliberate, the fact is they gained enormous reach at minimal cost due to the viral spread of their ads online in various manifestations for various ideals. It is possible for advertisers to facilitate the spread of their content via memes by remembering a few principals: the image must be witty, instantly recognisable and appealing to the right audience.
Memes can also be hijacked to use in ads. This is the more common use of memes in advertising and while it can be seen as a cop out because it is a lazy way of creating an ad cheaply, it can also be very effective. Here are just a couple examples of popular memes used in ads. For more examples, click on this link:
‘Y U NO’ Meme
This meme is commonly used to express frustration. Here it is in some of its various incarnations:
‘Grumpy Cat’ Meme
Grumpy cat is one of the most popular internet memes ever. It has appeared in art projects, on t-shirts and even a line of coffee products called ‘grumpachino’. Initially the memes involved making fun of the cat’s less than pleased appearance, but later the image was shared by users as a way of expressing their displeasure at various situations or simply as an ironic joke. Here are some examples:
This meme was hijacked for an anti-underage drinking campaign, which was designed by the students themselves:
1. The meme must be appropriate for the target audience (otherwise the people who share your ad wont care about your product).
2. The meme you create/hijack must be funny (otherwise no one will care).
3. The meme must be brand appropriate (otherwise it wont actually sell the product).
4. The meme must be current (otherwise your company will seem out of touch).
5. There must be an effective distribution plan if your meme is to go viral (otherwise it wont be a meme, but a bad ad).
Advantages of Memvertising
To sum up her are some of the reasons why memes can be an effective advertising tool:
- They are instantly familiar to the target audience
- They can be sourced cheaply
- The graphic is already done
- People love to share memes with their friends, which increases the ads chance of going viral.
So there you have it. That is why you should use memes in advertising. Still not clear on what a meme is? Perhaps this will clear it up for you.
Then again. Perhaps not.
 Davidson, P (2012), ‘The language of internet memes’, Mandiberg, M (ed.), The Social Media Reader, New York University Press, New York, pp.120-134.