The meme phenomenon goes far beyond entertainment and banal uses in the Internet. Political activists and creative marketing professionals have found in memes a powerful tool to spread social, political and commercial messages both impacting and viral. As the use of memes in propaganda and advertising is relatively new, it would not be a surprise to expect an exponential development from endless ways.
The strong persuading weapon
Ethan Zuckerman, director of the MIT Center for Civic Media and recognised in academic circles as a “Global Thinker”, published a research in 2008 called “The Cute Cat Theory of the Internet”. In his research Zuckerman argues that memes as innocent as cute pictures of cats are precondition to the spread of extremely powerful ideas, like democracy and dissidence. The concept of “if social media is effective for sharing pictures of cute cats, it is also effective for spreading political messages”, takes special repercussion in repressive governments such as China and Middle East countries, where Internet is heavily censored. The nature of a meme makes it almost impossible to censor by both human beings and computers; thus memes are often the only way to get a message out there.
In March 2012, an Israeli couple created a meme aimed to express solidarity and moderate the anxiety and fear over the possibility of a war between Israel and Iran. They created a slogan to add over profile pictures or any other pictures. In just a few hours, this meme took Facebook and the Internet as a storm.
The meme had a massive positive response from Iranian citizens, and they created a response meme showing solidarity and approval with the friendly gesture. They also created a Facebook page where subscribes share positive messages and inspirational photos to express their disagreement with a war between both countries. However, Israeli people with a different point of view, created cruel and cynical reactions of the original meme, spreading the opposite message away. This is a good and recent example of how activists create memes to influence people to take a position in regards to a political view.
In “Free Democracies” memes are also widely used to spread political activism. In November 2011, a group of students at the University of California, congregated on campus for an occupy protest in which they formed a human chain by linking their arms together. When they refused to obey the police request to leave, a police officer walked across the group, spaying orange-pepper straight down the line of unmoving students. As soon as the photograph of the pepper-spraying police officer was made public, it was massively modified and spread, describing in different and sarcastic ways how Government was using its oppressive force against pacific protesters.
Kony 2012: More than 100 million views in 6 days!!
Kony 2012 has become the most viral video ever in history. If you are one of the millions of viewers, you may know Joseph Kony is a Ugandan brutal criminal accused of crimes against humanity, child-sex slaves and child combatants, among other atrocities. The 30 minute video produced by Invisible Children, seeks to bring awareness of Kony´s horrible abuses and crimes “making Kony famous”, and encouraging US Government and international organisations to work toward the capture of Kony by December 2012. While Kony´s viral video is not a meme itself, heaps of social expressions in the internet supporting or reproving the campaign definitely are, getting masses of people involved expressing in different ways about a political issue. The fact is the campaign with and the wide diversity of memes created afterwards, has accomplished one of its core objectives: Kony is now very famous!
Memes have also been used for companies and brands to get connection and awareness. Smart advertisers have effectively capitalised the viral impact of memes, and have created non-traditional advertisements to be delivered on multiple high-traffic sites. In fact, this is the basis of viral marketing and it has proven its enormous effectiveness in countless campaigns.
A good example of a successful marketing internet-meme strategy is the Visa commercial with Matt Harding. Matt is a world traveller who in 2005 started video recording himself dancing particularly, instead of taking the typical tourist-photo with the background of the city visited. Matt emailed his videos to family and friends, and these passed around to others; and guess what... it eventually became viral!
“Where the Hell is Matt” became a meme, resulting in heaps of people waiting for him in different locations around the world, just to dance with him and appear in his internet videos.
Converse and Nike rapidly found another way to make money from memes; incorporating the rage comics in some of their shoe models. The result is very interesting, and certainly there is a vast mass of teenagers wanting to wear their favourite memes on their feet.
In an ever changing world, where global trends are re-defined constantly, early identification of social insights may become the business´ competitive advantage to stay a step forward from competitors, or even to spark a global revolution. Technology development is providing all the resources we need to stay connected and communicate our ideas and messages out. Now we don´t need to own a corporation or lead a global organisation to start changing the mindset of people out there, as the gross of communication turned online, now we all became information producers/consumers, developing new dynamics about how information is delivered to the rest of the world. Traditional media is almost dead, and social networking seems to arise with endless ways to spread advertising, propaganda or simply share information with friends (memes for example). The challenge now is to create concepts powerful enough to go viral, engaging people towards a certain objective (if we have one). What is next? Let´s wake up tomorrow to get surprised once again.