In case you’re not in-touch with millennials and unaware of how we like to merge words together to create new ones, meme-vertising means: advertising with the help of memes. If you don’t even know what memes are, I can’t help you.
There’s been some debate in ad agencies about using memes as a way to promote a brand. The divide has never been greater on the issue, as some think using memes is “like totally the new big thing” while others think it’s “silly and ineffective - only well-produced ads are what consumers [AKA me] want to see dammit!”. I like to avoid forming opinions about subjects until I’ve done due research, and thanks to the two consecutive flu’s I got last month, I had enough time to do just that.
A look into the past
Every decade brings a new popular method of communication. There was a time when print ads were actually the most effective medium to help a brand reach a young audience - funny, isn’t it? That’s when newspapers hired witty copywriters [like myself] to improve a client’s ad in the newspaper and help it get more responses. Art got incorporated into that process a while later, then they sold bigger ad spaces until there was a big ad where two spreads full of news articles used to be. I’m not sure if the idea of just selling a 40-page ad instead of a newspaper was ever discussed, but I guess newspapers were already old news by then [pun intended].
Print media evolved to become not only newspapers, but also magazines, newsletters, journals, brochures…and a whole bunch of other things. Later, they started segmenting further to accommodate every niche market there is, such as: teenage girls, young men, LGBTQ, adventure seekers…if there’s a list, it’s long! This niche-targeting helped advertisers focus on spending their money to reach the right audience: the consumers who actually need their product. It also created opportunities to sneak branded content into regular articles, which didn’t seem like advertising and made the brand seem more trustworthy. You probably knew all of this, but reminding you of it now, does it not resemble of any of the advertising trends that we’re seeing today?
A look into the present
What was happening with print media before social networks is now happening to social media. We have platforms that cater to every single market-niche there is. One major difference is: you don’t need to start a magazine or get hired by one to create content. Every single one of us has the ability to create content and some of us reach an even bigger audience than a magazine! We refer to the successful content creators as ‘influencers’, but what they really are are a one-person magazine. People follow them and check their content because it resonates with them. Me following Josh Ostrovsky [AKA thefatjewish] on Instagram today, for example, is just like how my elder sister bought every issue of Seventeen when she was a teenage girl who listened to Back Street Boys and experimented with hairstyles in the hope of looking like one of the Spice Girls in the 90’s.
However, there is such an overload of online content today, that the social networks are developing their technology to help you filter content and only see what resonates with you rather than giving you full exposure to everything out there. The downside to that is: you’re less likely to become an influencer today than you were before. On the plus side though, you’re also less likely to get sucked into political debates that often lead to an exchange of f-bombs, or discover that your aunt is homophobic.
Wasn’t this supposed to be about memes?
Memes are another outcome of this online content overload. People like memes because they’re easy to digest and share with others, but also because they express an idea in a humorous manner. As with most ideas out there in the world, not all memes are gold. The fact that they are so easy to create, makes it possible for anyone to create them. That’s why many of them appear to be rudimental and poorly designed - which is why many people in the ad industry dislike them. We just like to look at beautiful pieces of art, and at times, we put that above the purpose of the content piece. However, if you think about it, memes have been the method of choice for many advertisers who successfully managed to capture the attention of large audiences and even convinced them to vote for them/their referendum (i.e. Trump, Brexit, Satan…etc.).
Someone who also managed to utilise memes successfully and gain a lot of attention recently, was an agency called Social Chain when they were promoting the movie Bird Box on Netflix. The agency basically created memes using images from the movie and circulated them on social media. These memes didn’t read like ad copy, but were rather funny memes about regular daily experiences. They just simply used images from the movie to create those memes, like the ones below:
If everyone who watched the movie were me, then they probably saw the Bird Box memes on Twitter, wondered “What the heck is Bird Box?”, and wanted to understand the context of those memes, so they watched the movie. There were other factors at play in this case such as: casting Sandra Bullock for the lead role, putting the movie up in prime view, and [most likely] using influencers - but the memes definitely played an essential role in giving the movie the attention it received.
If you want to know more about how Social Chain promoted Bird Box, you can watch their video here where Katy Leeson [Managing Director of Social Chain] explains the fish meme strategy and why it worked.
So should I make memes for my insurance client now?
It depends on what kind of memes you make, and what the strategy you use to give an insurance client [or any client] more exposure. Memes aren’t usually made by brands, they’re made by ‘regular’ people. If an insurance brand started posting memes on their social pages with their logo on each meme, and their carefully written ad copy asking the consumer to buy insurance plans [this is how most people who oppose the use of memes in advertising imagine them being used], they would come off as a brand trying to speak “today’s lingo”. Just like when Hillary Clinton learned how to dab on Ellen DeGeneres, or when she said “Pokèmon GO to the polls”, those memes would look more forced than a cheer to Kim Jong-un in North Korea.
But let’s say we created memes that didn’t sound “addy” and we circulated them using the right influencers, who were able to create intrigue about that insurance brand. There would probably be a lot more visits to that brand's website, and with the right funnelling strategy, we could even increase sales! Why is that so far-fetched? Wasn’t advertising supposed to be the most progressive industry on the planet that understands all communication trends of today's age? Weren’t ad agencies big believers in exploring new possibilities and seeing potential where it’s usually missed? Or is that just interview talk that never gets followed up with real action?
A client called me crazy for proposing such a strategy to him once, but I took that as a compliment. In a world where consumers have endless options to skip ads and are overloaded by content, we need to be more creative in grabbing their attention, without annoying them. We need to create context and not just content. Sometimes the ideas that seem crazy are exactly the kind of ideas that might work.
Meme strategies speak to the consumers, while ads speak at them and trigger their firewalls. One day, even memes will be obsolete and we’ll need to find another way to get the message across. That’s why we have to stay open to new possibilities, instead of clinging to what we are familiar with - peppering our work up with some hints of relevancy that only make it seem more pretentious and out-of-touch.