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Generation Meme

On a particularly moving episode of Mad Men this season, Don Draper fell apart. The only woman who ever truly knew him (Spoiler alert! He’s not actually Don Draper) had died, and he was having a very hard time dealing with it. For the first time in the series’ run, Don Draper broke down and cried.

12 hours later, an image of Don Draper crying exploded across the internet. Within hours of its creation, Sad Don Draper was the internet flavor of the week. It became an internet meme.

What’s a meme?

According to the term’s originator, Richard Dawkins, you should think of a meme as a tiny bit of culture that gets passed along like a gene. A meme is a cultural virus. It is passed between humans in person, through word-of-mouth, and through various forms of media until it remixes itself or reaches extinction.

An “internet meme” spreads primarily from the ground up on the internet. This means that memes don’t usually originate from Google or Facebook, but rather 4Chan, the lawless, “international waters” of the internet.  It then “infects” others through word-of-mouth, email, blogs and social media. Memes are all around us.

If you’re my age, you probably remember the Hamster Dance (and the mere mention of it probably brings back that horrible, horrible song). More recent memes you’re probably familiar with include The Rickroll (click the link, I DARE YOU), The Bed Intruder Song, Keyboard Cat and, of course, LOLcats.

Sounds quite a bit like going viral, right?

Yep. “Going viral” simply refers to a meme’s ability to infect culture online, often with a brand message. The most recent (and largely successful) viral campaign was the Old Spice Guy, Isaiah Mustafa. While that campaign was the result of previous paid media (TV ads came before the viral phenomenon), Old Spice’s viral Youtube campaign will go down in advertising history.

Brands understand the power of viral videos; word-of-mouth spreads, and consumers trust other consumers more than advertisers. While most word-of-mouth is still spread offline (the proverbial “watercooler” is still alive and well), viral videos have a large impact on offline culture. This is why Tosh.0, a show devoted to viral videos and internet culture, often gets bigger ratings than The Daily Show. Internet culture has become our culture. Like it or not, we are Generation Meme.

Let’s use memes to sell stuff!

Naturally, brands are trying to capitalize on our love of memes. They’re trying to find out what makes something go viral so that they can create the newest viral masterpiece. Some advertisers are beginning to use viral stars in their ads; most recently, the The Double Rainbow Guy was featured in an ad for Microsoft. So, will we continue to see more and more memes show up in ads?

It really depends on how fast the advertisers can react to culture. Old Spice’s viral campaign was about as low-latency as it gets; people were sending out questions via social media to Old Spice, and within a day an ad had been made and aired on Youtube. However, this isn’t the norm. By the time a lot of advertisers will have devised a script, developed a budget, and produced the commercial, the meme would already be decreasing in popularity or extinct.

The cycle time for a meme (from initial discovery to extinction) is getting much shorter. As soon as one meme pops up, another will soon follow. Memes are popping up weekly. This means that advertisers are going to have to get the approval of clients and create an entire ad in very little time. This is not easy to do.

For advertisers, it’s really a race to see if they can put together a coherent ad before the meme loses its place in pop culture. If there’s one thing worse than not making an ad at all, it’s trying to capitalize on pop culture after the fad is over and looking uncool and out-of-date (though, sometimes that’s the point).

I guess the real question is whether or not memes will stay around in culture long term. Is Sad Keanu going to be our generation’s Mona Lisa? Absolutely not. But for now, they make us laugh. As long as the internet allows us to share all the strange and wonderful things we find, memes will have a place in our funny bones.

What do you think: Are memes now a part of pop culture or are they just odd spasms of internet weirdness? Can advertisers use them without “selling out?”

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  1. September 28, 2010 at 9:33 am | #1

    Tom,

    Great points. I think the best use of an internet meme was when Ben & Jerry put a double rainbow on the site and the cows were saying “OMG, OMG double rainbow. So beautiful,” “What does it mean???” just a few days after the double rainbow guy went viral. They quickly recognized an opportunity and even quicker capitalized on it.

    • September 28, 2010 at 10:12 am | #2

      Hey Addy,

      That’s a really good example. Something like that is easy to do, it shows that a brand is plugged-in to culture (and, even better on the internet, plugged-in to internet culture), and it makes a person’s day just a little more fun. It also likely got Ben & Jerry’s a bunch of word-of-mouth(maybe even some actual press) and likely drove a lot of traffic to the website. Makes you wonder why more brands aren’t able or willing to adapt to culture so quickly.

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