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Generation Meme

September 27, 2010 2 comments

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?”

“Spice”-ing Up Advertising

July 13, 2010 3 comments
(Disclaimer: This was written on the morning of Old Spice’s Social Media Assault, right before the whole thing exploded. That’s why it is barely discussed)

By this point, you’d have to be under a very large rock for a very long time to have missed the Old Spice ads. The campaign went viral when it began and continues to garner a lot of attention with each new ad. The campaign managed to get star Isaiah Mustafa a deal with NBC. It also won the Grand Prix Award at the Cannes Lions International Advertising Festival, which is sort of like the Best Picture Oscar. Additionally, the ad was recently nominated for an Emmy for Outstanding Commercial, and will most likely win (with their momentum, none of the others can really compare). So, what makes this ad campaign so special? Why does it connect with us, and why did it go viral?

Awe-Inspiring

The New York Times ran an article that says we share things that inspire awe. It states that in order for something to inspire awe, “Its scale is large, and it requires ‘mental accommodation’ by forcing the reader to view the world in a different way.” Now let’s look at the Old Spice ads. They definitely have that “how did they do it?” quality that many viral ads have. Curiosity piques interest. However, the ads aren’t doctored. They are well-known to be authentic and shot in one sequence. It was all done without CGI or any digital funny-business. This is certainly awe inspiring, because it makes us view the world of commercials (in today’s digital age) in a different way; we’re so used to over-the-top CGI effects (thanks, Michael Bay and James Cameron) that a spectacle like these commercials (without the help of CGI) is certainly interesting. The scale of the commercials is definitely large enough: TV ads reach a huge chunk of the population.

They’re Actually Funny

I don’t know a single person who doesn’t smile every time they see the commercials. I’ve seen most of them many, many times and I still laugh. The commercials are so over-the-top ridiculous that they’re incredibly funny. They take every Fabio-esque stereotype of male masculinity (including an un-ironic love of mustaches and riding on a white horse topless) and throw it in your face. It would be annoying, but Old Spice is aware of the stereotypes and understands the ridiculous nature of them, so it is able to make fun of itself. This sort of humor connects directly with our generation; we love satire, and we love to see big corporations not take themselves so seriously.

Sharable: These ads are inherently sharable. Just from personal experience, it had a TON of morning-after watercooler buzz in real life, and it went viral on Youtube, Twitter, Facebook, and the rest of the internet. They’re short enough that anyone (even those of you at the office) can view it without getting into any real trouble. The Old Spice phenomenon got so big that if you didn’t know about it, you felt left out.

They Listen and Respond

Old Spice has a Twitter account (@OldSpice, naturally), and they LISTEN to us. We know this because the account tweets back at individual users. The brand has even started to respond via personalized YouTube videos. The takeaway here is that if you want to get and KEEP our attention, you have to listen to us and respond within a reasonable time. If you do, your brand will seem more personal and authentic. We like that. It also helps that the replies are pretty hilarious.

Of course, as with any cultural phenomenon, the ads have their detractors who say the campaign is good for quick laughs but may hurt the brand in the long-term. Others cite that all the awards and buzz doesn’t always translate into sales. Even if it hasn’t exactly rose sales yet, ask anyone which brand of deodorant first pops into his or her head and I would bet Old Spice is it. Many companies would kill for that top-of-mind brand recall and awareness. Whatever the case, these ads have bored a vuvuzela-sized hole in the zeitgeist and have made advertising a little more fun. Well done, Old Spice.

Update: 8/25/2010

After the social media blitzkrieg, Old Spice’s sales soared. Mustafa eventually won the Emmy, and everything about this campaign was deemed a success. There have already been a number of copycats, but none have matched up to the original. This campaign is sure to ride off on its white horse (in only a towel, of course) into the annals of advertising history.

(Photo via Urlesque)

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