The enduring power of memes

How advertising firms are catching on to the Internet’s most viral trends

Grumpy cat is undoubtedly the Internet's most famous feline
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“Let’s make a Happy video!”

“Let’s do the Harlem Shake.”

Planking? Yes, of course. Check out my photos.”

“Oh look it’s another Grumpy Cat!”

You’d have to be living under a rock not to be familiar with memes, which are according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, “an idea, behavior, or style that spreads from person to person within a culture.” An Internet meme is spread via social media and email, and can be a video, visual, link, hashtag or website. But seriously, not knowing what a meme is would warrant someone posting ‘Ermahgerd’, ‘Doh’ or ‘Durp’ on your Facebook wall. After all ‘one does not simply’ ignore the tide — especially when it represents a marketing opportunity.

Memes are nothing new. The word stems from mimeme (the Greek for ‘to imitate’) and was coined by Richard Dawkins, a British evolutionary biologist, in 1976. He used it to explain how certain elements and ideas within a culture spread (e.g. fashion, music, phrases, etc.). In today’s connected world, memes are in your face 24/7.

From Success Kid to Conspiracy Keanu, internet memes are everywhere and there seems to be no let up. And websites like quickmeme, knowyourmeme and even Lebanesememes make sure there is no escape. So ‘shut up your mouse’ people, because ‘resistance is futile.’

Lebanese versions of Pharrell Williams’ “Happy” are a hit online


Internet memes are easy to share and create a sense of belonging. This adds to their mass appeal and makes them worth exploring for marketing purposes. They make it easy to create and share fun or thought-provoking content, can help a brand engage with clients on social media and can even be a tool to heighten employee morale. But to use a meme effectively, the brand has to identify its target audience, pinpoint their interests and zero in on the kind of media they consume the most.

The potential is real. As Jonah Berger, Wharton Marketing Professor, claims: “Marketers have realized that traditional advertising isn’t working … it’s not just how many people saw your ad on TV, it’s how many views and shares it got online.” Internet memes have that sort of traction. And going viral is what today’s advertising game is all about. As Liz MacDonald, director of client services for Poptent, a video production company explains, “[The] viral video is the holy grail.”

A blog, Memetic Advertisement, showcases how advertising is adopting popular memes (aka ‘meme-hijacking’) to lure the crowds. Examples include Wilkinson Sword’s campaign that uses the Movember moustache meme, Abercrombie & Fitch’s remake of Carly Rae Jepsen’s ‘Call Me Maybe’ video and Toyota New Zealand’s use of a cute cat. But not all attempts at turning internet memes into marketing success stories work. If a brand fails to take the meme a step further or the campaign seems forced, it can all go horribly wrong. An example of this is Microsoft’s use of the ‘Double Rainbow dude’ in 2010. The internet backlash was unforgiving. Some brands have managed to go beyond adapting already popular memes and have created hugely appealing memes of their own. A fine example of this is Old Spice’s famous ‘The Man Your Man Could Smell Like’ campaign. It witnessed an impressive number of shares and even triggered a series of parodies.

Warning: using an internet meme for marketing isn’t totally free of intellectual property and copyright concerns. The very viral and borrowed nature of internet memes makes things even more complex. Especially when advertisers want to capitalize on the power of internet memes.

Some companies have found themselves in a pickle because of their internet meme-inspired advertising campaigns. For instance Warner Brothers faced copyright infringement charges for the use of Nyan Cat. Surprisingly, there were no charges for subjecting people to the irresistibly irritating “nyanyanyanya.” When companies want to transform an internet meme into a revenue generating advertising machine, they need to find the owner of the meme. This can be easier said than done since many a time, ‘only the NSA knows’. Other times though, this task is very straightforward since meme owners publically make themselves known, such as ‘Overly Attached Girlfriend’.

So ‘Y U No’ think of tapping into the power of memes? But be quick! Many memes fade into the endless void of the internet in mere weeks and are forgotten forever. So strike while the iron’s hot and the trend is still cool. We live in fickle times.

Jasmina Najjar

Jasmina Najjar is a conceptual copywriter, journalist and communications skills instructor at the American University of Beirut

One Comment;

  1. James said:

    memes are becoming more and more powerful and useful every passing day on the internet. They are being a great way of advertisement and spreading laughs.