Memes and marketing

by Alex Anderson on 20 July 2012

Late last night on my final Reddit visit before bed I happened across a hilarious set of images entitled‘shell accidentally creates anti-shell meme generator’. Glorious! So I emailed the link to myself to tweet at work. Ha-ha stupid Shell.

Now, perhaps I was just tired or I secretly wanted it to be true, but nonetheless I took the images at face value. I thought this was an example of the Internets spontaneous satirical humour at its finest. I was wrong.

My calamitous tweet was picked up by some of our friendly followers who pointed out my mistake and i was able to correct myself accordingly. The selection of memes I thought had been the result of Shell’s ill judgment had actually been part of a satirical marketing campaign in opposition to Shell’s arctic drilling.

Now i am no stranger to memes and I frequent Reddit and dedicated meme websites (I find them to be relatable, witty and funny) but my blunder really got me thinking about memes and marketing. How effective are they be as marketing tools and how best can business harness their fickle power?

What is a meme?

First things first, what is a meme? The phrase itself was originally coined by Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book ‘The Selfish Gene’. He described a meme as  ‘an idea, behavior or style that spreads from person to person within a culture’. Internet memes as we know them fit snugly into this definition. Now, its impossible to say what the first meme was but they were popularized largely by online communities such as Reddit and the infamous 4chan. More recently however businesses have been both creating and spreading memes through advertising, but why should you take notice?

Memes are not for everyone and before you think about using them consider your business and the image you trying to represent. However, memes have great marketing potential. They are relatable,  already viral, great for sharing and they attract attention. The proof:

  • Y U NO guy on a HipChat billboard.  This memetic advertisement (just one billboard) was a huge success. It was all over the internet – on TechCrunch, Twitter and Tumblr (among numerous others). Best of all it led to an insane rise in searches for ‘HipChat’
  • Another subtle use of memetic advertising was Virgin’s use of success kid. It was rolled out as both a billboard campaign and used on their website
  • The crowing achievement of memetic advertising is surely the The Old Spice ‘The man your man could smell like’ campaign. They also created others including ‘believe in your smellf’ and ‘smell better than yourself’. What is so great about the Old Spice marketing is its creativity, it’s unique. It is the opposite to the above in that Old Spice did not use memes they created one

The above are all examples of memes used well. However, using memes is no guarantee of success.

An example of questionable memetic advertising is Vitamin water’s ‘grab it by the horns’ video. Without going into great detail just from the comments and dislikes on YouTube you can see it was not well received. Nevertheless it does have just shy of 500,000 views, and its said there is no such thing as bad publicity.

So, how might you approach memetic advertising?


  • Try not to shove it down your consumers throat, see above vitamin water advert. Approach things with a modicum of taste and caution, don’t throw memes into an advert and hope to attract attention, its not smart or funny. Here is an example of a meme used well, honey badger does it badass
  • As with anything, do your research and don’t get it wrong. Appreciate a memes context and use it accordingly
  • Try not to use  ‘dead’ memes. Browse Reddit and other online communities to keep abreast of new and popular memes
  • Some memes might be especially applicable to your business. There are also some that can be used in most situations, for example: Y U NO guy, success kid, me gusta. The list goes on

So, what do you think about using memes in marketing? Have you considered them at all? My personal view is that they are great if you can come up with something unique and creative and be cautious about picking an existing meme and bending it to your brand; this is likely to provoke the ire of online communities, if you care about such things.

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