Meme-Based Marketing: What It Is And Why It’s Basically The Worst Thing Ever
If you’ve ever taken a collegiate marketing course, there’s a pretty reasonable chance that you’re familiar with the following scenario:
Class begins. Your professor marks attendance, and takes 10 minutes to fiddle around with the projector, or, perhaps more appropriate for our current age, they share their screen with the class on Zoom. They seem pretty excited to show you something.
“Today we’re going to look at a fun and unique approach to marketing,” they tell you. You don’t entirely believe them. The last time they said this, you were witness to a disturbing Kohls campaign featuring some Muppets doing the Nae Nae. You still haven’t recovered. What fresh trauma do they have for the class today?
The answer arrives in the form of a Delta Airlines safety video born in the fiery depths of hell. Or some out-of-touch corporate office. Same thing, really. By the time the video is over, you’ve seen all flavors of faded internet icons doing the Harlem Shake in a Boeing 737. Annoying Orange. Fred. Ancient beings that were condemned to have been forgotten by the passage of time. 2010 was a weird and admittedly cringey time for the internet’s sense of humor. Only, Delta decided to release this video in 2015. And now it’s 2020. The fact that you’re seeing this thing at all is practically an assault on your human rights. And therein lies the problem. Part of it, at least.
There’s a disturbing abundance of these commercials, ads and broader marketing campaigns. Some of the most infamous examples might include the much-reviled, impact text-laden, “EATS SPICY GOODNESS, LIKE A BOSS” commercial that Wendy’s decided to run in 2015. Or the 2018 “Memesteins” Xfinity TV video. Point is, there’s got to be at least one you’ve seen or one that you’re (regrettably) familiar with.
It’s somewhat understandable why college professors like to show students these types of things in class. It’s entirely plausible that they think, Huh, neat. Ad firms are putting this stuff out, and I guess they’re a respectable enough authority. Even better, my Gen Z class will love me for it. I truly am the hippest and coolest teacher in this university. *dabs*
Jokes aside, it is all coming from a genuinely benevolent place. But that’s part of the issue. Let’s say that, in-line with my well-intentioned professors, some of these “meme-based marketing campaigns” were created by an earnest young creative kid in the ad industry. No stodgy old corporate offices involved. Does that change things? No. They still absolutely suck. Because no matter how much one thinks they might be “with it” and understand how to appeal to the “internet generation,” chances are, they’re not, and they don’t.
It’s nothing personal. The internet moves fast. What was peak comedy last week might get someone banned on Twitter today for violating the user agreement to not be terribly unfunny and sickeningly stale.
This stuff is cringey. It’s cheap. It’s just plain bad ads. Yet for some reason, I cannot escape it in the classroom. So I’m writing this to campaign against it. The real problem is that this type of marketing is often presented by professors as a good thing. It absolutely is not. If meme-based marketing is to be taught, it should be regarded with a fair amount of caution. Because it’s dangerous stuff if you’ll excuse my hyperbole. If marketing students are going to be shown these ads, they genuinely need a disclaimer. Otherwise, this type of marketing will continue to be produced.
I don’t think it’s impossible for brands and marketers to occasionally get it right. I’d like to bring up some of the things that have gone down on the wild frontier of Twitter as a prime example. Most of us are familiar with Wendy's Twitter account. If you’re not already, here’s the gist. A bunch of years ago, Wendy’s Twitter, @Wendy’s, became known for its snarky language and clever comebacks aimed at their competition. They had “beef” with Burger King, and slammed Hooters in what were some genuinely funny roasts. Not only that, but @Wendy’s didn’t take any crap from other users either. It didn’t matter if the people tweeting were technically “consumers.” No one was safe. If someone, let’s call them Dave, tweeted “Wendy’s fries suck”, rest assured that @Wendy’s would reply, “no, YOU suck, dAvE.”
Was this in-line with traditional marketing? Absolutely not. But it was fun stuff. A “Human Brand” was something people could latch onto. And for a couple of years, the trend went on. But something eventually changed. It wasn’t necessarily that users grew tired of @Wendy’s constant sass and attitude per se, but a number of factors eventually led to the formula growing stale. One was the fact that the original person behind the account, at some point, stopped running things. The tweets started to feel less erratic and more scheduled. Some of the edge was dropped. Many of the jokes felt a bit contrived, like they were being produced in a “funny factory” of sorts.
Another contributing factor was that the trend of “Human Brands” on social media grew. Initially, this was welcome. Burger King, IHOP, and a multitude of other restaurant chains were willing to fight for their names on Twitter and it was exciting to see everyone duke it out. The meme grew and it became an accepted thing for brands to be “quirky and relatable” on various platforms. It was a regular occurrence to log onto Twitter and see that Domino’s was “in need of a hug.” This is not to suggest that Wendy’s was the first, but they certainly legitimized the practice. Only, it didn’t take long until the gag ran its course. Other marketers who didn’t understand that what made the original idea fun began applying the same, tired methods and the formula grew… formulaic. It’s hard to quantify when the shift took place. I’m sure there are some users who still enjoy the whole charade, and to them, the shift isn’t detectable. But I’m the kind of person who obsesses over everything I say and whether or not my “quips” hit. It’s not exactly healthy behavior, but it does mean I notice when something is off about a joke. And I’m definitely not alone.
I don’t want to conjure up the following horrible term, but I’ve got ideas to communicate, so sue me. Most “meme-conscious” people (I think I just threw up a little) are tired of the “lol this brand is tweeting like a person!?!?” trend. What I perceive to have happened, was that a fun concept was eventually run into the ground by marketers hopping on a bandwagon. The whole thing became very transparent in its execution.
As I said, there are outliers. Even after the fall of “Funny Brand Twitter,” there remain accounts representing different brands that have a pretty good handle on how to utilize meme-based marketing. I’d like to give a quick shout-out to the Kum & Go Twitter account, @kumandgo. I myself have never been to a Kum & Go. I don’t think we even have them in the Tri-State area, but I could be wrong. But what I can say for certain is that they have a very unfortunate name. And @kumandgo knows it too. They lean into it, without ever really being too crude, and you know what? I think it’s pretty funny.
Is all of this to say that I’m the authority on what is funny and what isn’t? Yes.
Okay, actually, no. I’m someone who tries to be funny and usually fails. Maybe this piece will help you determine that for yourself. But I am a marketing major with an interest in the industry and its practices, and more importantly, I try to be aware. Self-aware. Aware of others. Ideas. What works on a greater level and what doesn’t. And it is my belief that as a whole, it is very difficult to get meme-based marketing to work in your favor. Handle it with care. It’s very volatile and can easily blow up in your face. And it often does. Which is why it’s basically the worst thing ever.
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