One of the new frontiers of digital advertising is the use of memes to increase a brand’s popularity. The idea is simple: take a piece of media, like a scene from a famous film or a stock photo, and give it a new meaning by superimposing text on it.
But despite their apparently straightforward structure, corporations so far have rarely been able to successfully use memes in their ads. Few campaigns have created brand exposure, while most have resulted in PR disasters. Toppers Pizza’s failed attempt to make a trendy catchphrase into a meme is a fine example of how companies fail to understand the well-defined rules that structure absurdist millennial humor. Toppers tried to play on the assonance between the meme’s catchphrase “Shorty goes low, low, low” and its product’s name, “Buffalo” Chicken Topper pizza. However, the original meme was a reference to a T-Pain song, and the joke relied on creatively reimagining the context in which the catchphrase could be used.
Another striking example of the disconnect between corporate advertisers and the cultural trend they try to employ is the “Such HealthCare.gov” meme campaign, launched by the US Department of Health and Human Services. This utilized another popular meme depicting a Shiba Inu dog (“Doge”) and its internal monologue, filled with incorrect and infantile English expressions. The campaigners failed to understand the ironic nature of the meme and used it to promote Obamacare — to the bemusement of the younger audience it was targeting.
Memes’ resistance to monetization is grounded in their unmanageable digital evolution cycle: the speed and originality with which memes are transformed online is not comparable to most traditional media. Because of this, memes have remained impervious to exploitation by the marketing industry.
Memes resist traditional marketing tactics because of their unique linguistic structure: they convey messages through allegories, and so cannot be understood in isolation from the digital and sociocultural environment from which they originated. This makes memes a form of cultural expression that is inherently unprofitable, because it negates two paradigms of modern capitalist markets: intellectual property and control over access. Memes do not have creators or owners; they also, in their spontaneous articulations and ramifications, do not strive to be understood by any one target audience. Memes, like art, exist only because there is an urge to communicate something and, as such, escape the logic of profit.
Unwanted by Social Media Giants
One consequence of memes’ unprofitability is that they are being marginalized on Facebook. Since 2013, and more decisively so since 2018, Facebook’s algorithm has aggressively filtered and customized content based on predicted user behavior. The aim has been to maximize engagement by means of increasing the average time users spend on the platform. This resulted in repetitive News Feeds that favored branded content and posts from a limited number of accounts.
Facebook has vehemently denied it restricts user-generated content, calling it the “26 friend hoax” after widespread speculation that users were only shown new content from about twenty-five friend accounts under the new algorithm, and no content from public pages such as meme pages. Yet its official statements on its content curation policies support the anecdotal experience of many meme creators. Facebook’s new algorithm “prioritizes posts from friends and family over public content . . . [during these updates,] Pages may see their reach, video watch time and referral traffic decrease.”
This gave rise to a series of retaliations from meme creators, who found increasingly bizarre ways to get around the algorithm. One of the most memorable ones was the rise of so-called “split memes,” where memes were cut in half and uploaded as photo albums. Another significant trend was the conversion of still memes into ten-second videos.
These adaptations attested to the resilience of memes as both cultural artifacts and a means of communication; they also confirm that Facebook found memes to be less profitable than other content. This owes more to the kind of engagement memes create than to the lack of popularity of the medium. Memes cannot easily be used to place advertisement or to collect valuable data on users’ consumption patterns.
The latest frontier of Facebook’s crusade to control the content and spread of memes is its new artificial intelligence (AI) system, Rosetta. The new system is being trained to recognize the meaning of composited pieces of media like memes. The aim of the project is, according to Facebook, to curb the rise of “hateful memes.” This is a response to stringent public opinion and legal demands that Facebook should do more to prevent its platform from being used to promote and organize hate crimes.
Facebook’s enormous investments in AI seem to have been inefficient in curbing the rise of content inciting violence. Recent cases that have shocked public opinion include Facebook’s alleged collusion with far-right BJP party officials in India over recent intracommunal violence, as well as the spread of hate directed at the Rohingya Muslim community in Malaysia. Facebook’s own statement on the progress of Rosetta indicates that one of the outcomes of AI development will be teaching Rosetta to recognize sarcasm in memes.
There is an urgent need to monitor the spread of content that actively promotes or organizes violence, and for a platform the size of Facebook, choosing a fully automated system is beyond question. But the existence of a fully automated moderation system that can recognize sarcasm and satire in composite media raises major ethical questions. Beyond its intended purpose, this system could be used, at best, to systematically track down and limit the spread of memes and increase the profit margin of Facebook at the expense of users’ creative freedom; at worst, this system could be used to target the expression of political dissent, hidden in memes.
While some social-media platforms have successfully stemmed the financial damage of a meme takeover, others have succumbed to it. The most striking economic disaster caused by the unprofitability of memes is the commercial decline of microblogging platform Tumblr.
In 2019, Verizon sold off Tumblr to Automatic for the price of a two-bedroom house in San Francisco. Verizon had acquired Tumblr in 2013 for a staggering $1 billion, at a time when Tumblr gained more than 13 billion global page views in a month. It sold for little over $3 million.
The reason for the momentous fall of Tumblr on the marketplace is simple: it failed to attract any decent advertising. An example of the particularly hostile environment that Tumblr represents for advertising is the blogging community’s enthusiastic reaction to Verizon’s spectacular loss, indeed rallying around their unmarketability as a feature of their group identity. Part of the problem may be blamed on the site’s terrible mismanagement. But that doesn’t take away from the consistent failure of Yahoo and Verizon to understand the user base of Tumblr. A thriving, content-creating, self-sufficient community is not an easy target to turn into a cash machine.
Memes Just Don’t Make Good Ads
Step-by-step guides on how to run a successful meme campaign remain popular, in spite of the potential PR risk. This digital marketing strategy often aims at achieving brand exposure. This is the social engineering of quasi-human interactions between an organization and its customer base, with the aim of creating brand loyalty.
To this end, memes have long looked like a new gold rush for advertisers: a plentiful and cheap, if not free, source of publicity. And yet there are many more stories of companies that have fallen prey to the unintended consequences of meme marketing campaigns than of companies that have succeeded.
Failure can often result in compromised or ridiculed brand images — as happened to McDonald’s, when its hashtag campaign was hijacked by users critical of the company’s policies. And, as for the argument that “any press is good press,” studies suggest otherwise. It has been shown that memes made by internet users about brands led to a negative shift in brand perception in an audience that was previously neutral about the brand. If the audience had a positive view, exposure to memes about the brand still led them to turn a more critical eye to it.
No matter how many Gen Z interns they unlawfully grind into the dirt in unpaid social media roles, corporations haven’t been able to get their hands on the magical formula of memes. So, what is it about memes that makes them the kryptonite of marketing and branding? A well-known obstacle to meme marketing campaigns is companies’ reticence to allow users to modify their advertisement content, due to intellectual property concerns and potential hijacking of the campaign by hostile users. However, this doesn’t explain the whole phenomenon.
There is something about internet humor, and meme humor in particular, that is intrinsically unmarketable: you can’t try to sell a product by putting it on a meme. A striking example of this is the “Conke or Bepis” meme. Intentionally misspelling “Coke” and “Pepsi,” the meme intends to make fun of the rivalry between Coca-Cola and Pepsi. Anything that gets turned into a meme loses credibility, because memes invite critical reflection of the subjects they portray.
The average meme contains a multitude of implicit references to create popular forms of subversive comedy; with each added reference, new light is cast on the original message, calling its perspective into question. There are no restrictions on the scope of the topics that might be combined within one meme; inspiration can be drawn from pop culture, politics, the high arts, and even personal or shared experiences.
This makes memes incompatible with the marketing strategy of appealing to the widest possible target audience: a meme’s content is almost never universally and readily understood, and when it is, this is very often a sign of a poorly constructed meme unlikely to remain popular for long. This means there is seldom a sufficient overlap between potential customers and those who will be able to easily understand the latest meme trend.
An additional obstacle to the mass marketing of memes is the ephemeral nature of any single meme. Internet memes are unique as forms of cultural expression because they undergo a far-accelerated life cycle: every single meme may be popular and relevant for a few days, or even just a few hours. It is then taken on by other users who reimagine its basic structure or template, adding in new references according to their own interpretation.
Any meme in isolation will very quickly lose relevance, especially once removed from the trend within which it was created. This is the second major technical difficulty that advertisers face: to effectively appeal to a vast portion of the market, they must carefully select a meme or meme trend that is widely recognized but has not yet run its course. But almost as soon as a meme is known by enough people to be reliable as a marketing tool, it has already plunged into obsolescence. Marketing strategies can plan for this by seeking to adapt their campaign as the memes evolve. But this inevitably returns them to the first problem: the higher the “quality,” or appeal, of a meme, the narrower the audience it can reach.
Not So Simple
Memes as a medium appeal to corporations for the same reason they will long remain elusive to them: a meme appears as a very manageable, simple format, yet its simplicity is constructed by very precise and unspoken rules. A meme relies heavily on the use of allegories to convey its meaning. This fundamental aspect of memes is essentially incompatible with the mantras of modern advertising, which rely on creating an immediate, primal impression on consumers.
Limor Shifman identifies three dimensions to the meme: content, form, and stance. Content refers to the specific ideas that a meme conveys. Form is the structure through which the message is conveyed, such as images, text, and videos; and stance refers to the way in which the meme creator positions themselves in relation to the content and the audience. The latter dimension, the stance, is the most difficult for any meme marketing campaign to correctly appropriate.
That is because, for the most part, the marketer’s stance has to be linear and literal, either urging the audience to purchase a product or trying to convince the audience that the brand is “cool.” This limits the very nuanced range of implied meaning that user-created memes have; there is no space, for instance, for the satirical and critical function of a meme, which is a fundamental aspect of the experience of enjoying memes.
Memes and advertising are at odds — and they always will be. A “good” meme will be reinterpreted by the audience: the essence of a meme is its potential to subvert a subject and in turn be subverted. Marketing relies on convincing an audience of the truthfulness of its message, while a meme’s value lies in the process by which the message is distorted and imitated.
This makes memes un-monetizable, in a world of immediate connotations and simple messages. But it also makes them a potential tool for the linguistic and cultural revolution that we need to resist the totalizing nature of capitalism’s message promoting the primacy of profit.
In a digital environment in which everything is layered with invasive and subliminal ads, and where we are under increased pressure to monetize our hobbies through easy-to-use platforms such as Instagram or YouTube, the simple act of making, sharing, and enjoying memes can be liberatory.