Analysis & Opinion

Who’s afraid of the big, bad meme?

July 29, 2009 Katie Tammaro

The first time you see it, you don’t think much of it. It’s a video of a cat playing the keyboard. It’s a one-hit wonder from the 80s. It’s David Caruso. You hear the whispering at work, on the bus, in line for groceries. The topic just keeps popping up: a shared joke among the cognoscenti. Okay, you think, I guess it’s a THING. And by that time it’s getting talked about on CNN and your mom forwards it to you via email.

There’s a name for this sort of cultural tidbit. You’ve been hit by a meme. And more and more frequently, meme literacy has become a sort of social currency. If you keep up with the memesphere, you’re one of the cool kids. And we all—or more specifically, all the brands we represent—would like to sit at your lunch table.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. “Meme” is a term coined by Richard Dawkins in his book “The Selfish Gene”. Today, Dawkins is best known for his polarizing stance on atheism, but before he became controversial he was primarily an evolutionary biologist. He describes a meme as a non-biological entity that acts like a gene, evolving to survive. In other words, a meme is a piece of information that changes over time to ensure it stays relevant. And when something is relevant, it gets passed along.

Before the Internet era, advertising was already rife with memes. My earliest encounter (dating myself here) was Wendy’s wildly successful “Where’s the Beef?” campaign. Divorced from its original context, the tagline showed up on t-shirts and bumper stickers, in cartoons and bawdy comedy acts. It was a copywriter’s dream: a line that escaped from its brand and embarked on a life of its own. Later, “Got Milk?” sprung frothy white legs and followed the same path. Years later it’s still around, mutated into fraternity “Got Beer?” tees (not to mention an ill-fated PETA campaign). That’s quite a lifespan.

But the Internet has brought meme fever to a whole new level. When you accelerate exchange of information, you accelerate the evolution of the same info. Traditional branding strives for consistency, but memetics is just the opposite: encourage people to put their own stamp on something and it automatically becomes more useful and relevant to them.

As marketers, we have two options: harness existing memes to carry our message or create our own memes. Both carry risks. No one wants lolcats to sell insurance. And the novelty of upload-your-head sites where you can stick a photo on a dancing mascot has quickly worn thin. But execution aside, we can learn something from the meme phenomenon: it’s okay to let the consumer mess around with brands a little. Let them be part of the process. Let them poke a little harmless fun. Give up the stranglehold on your brand, and you can turn the entire Internet into your creative department. We didn’t create these brands to sit in glass cases, we created them to bring joy and empathy and emotion to consumer goods. So now that it’s working, why are we so frightened?