Category Archives: meme

Meme Christmas


Last summer we debated with someone whether memes exist — the Richard Dawkins’ concept that, because humans copy other human behavior, we thus store and transfer ideas, spreading cultural practices like genes until the winners evolve and replicate and become embedded in all of humanity. Certainly some ideas seem to unfurl and take hold — clothing such as ties for men and dresses for women in the West, the courtesy of saying “Bless you” when someone sneezes, and the winningest idea of all, God, who has survived for thousands of years as a concept in our heads relatively intact (Dawkins dismisses the idea of God, but that’s another story). Whether or not ideas can exist as large entities, or small atomic units similar to genes, is arguable, but they certainly get around.

So today, Dec. 25, if you turn on TV you’ll likely see memes in action: Jimmy Stewart looking crazily off the bridge in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” or the glowing leg lamp of Jean Shepherd’s “A Christmas Story.” The radio will play the old Bing Crosby tunes your parents heard as a child. The replayed cultural clutter of Christmas is a series of almost-baked memes that are trying to take hold — God, remember, is the winner, so holiday carols barely 50 years old are still young in the meme game (Mariah Carey is about ready to break through with “All I Want for Christmas” … geez). In a few days these newly embedded memes will fade, before recycling next year, and we’ll return to even younger ideas, fashion (knee-high boots for women are everywhere north of the Mason-Dixon line in the U.S.) or music (the damned Black Eyed Peas are still around and in February Madonna will play the Super Bowl). Newer baby memes will be born across the web in 2012, because the low cost of transmission on the Internet makes it a singles bar for shallow ideas to hook up; some advertiser will invent the next Old Spice hit, some other silliness will spread like cat videos via Facebook and Twitter.

And in truth, you’re likely trying to create a meme yourself. Please retweet me, you think. Take my creation or idea and share it. In all our hearts, we want our minds to live forever by becoming imprinted in all of humanity. Like the sex drive to mate, when we push out our ego-fueled thoughts, we are driven by lust unaware we really are a pawn in the race for human immortality. Wouldn’t it be great if once we’re gone from Earth, generations replayed our image/concept/blog post witticism forever, and we could leave knowing we shaped all of human thought?

All we want for Christmas is immortality. It’s a good idea. Pass it along.

Ben Kunz is vice president of strategic planning at Mediassociates, an advertising media planning and buying agency, and co-founder of its digital trading desk eEffective.

Originally posted on Google+.

Nike and your Lady Gaga meme future

Darryl Ohrt calls this new Nike spot epic, but we think it’s more — an explanation of how individual memes have taken over pop culture.

A meme (pronounced to rhyme with “gene”) is a cultural idea or practice that, once seeded, can spread until almost everyone has adopted it. The Nike soccer players flash through victories and defeats, each result cascading into a future of fortune or disaster. In reality, memes can last a long time — blue jeans, leather jackets, women’s stockings and men’s short haircuts have been around for more than 50 years. The word “cool” to represent, well, cool is a meme that stuck. God, religion, political views and superstitions are foundational memes. Other cultural units have fleeting lifespans — pop music, women’s dress lengths, goatees, the use of the word “curate” to denote managing something in advertising, the “#” hashtag symbol everyone used a year ago on Twitter that now appears to be waning. We wonder if the hipster-khaki look will ever take off. And just as each soccer player’s fortunes in this Nike spot are cut short by the subsequent action of another, new memes tend to push prior ideas off the cultural table.

Mutations and marketers

British scientist Richard Dawkins thought up the idea, stating memes are cultural expressions that, like genes, mutate and spread. All you need is variation (a new idea), propagation (the ability to create copies of the idea), and something called “differential fitness” (in which some ideas are better suited for an environment than another) and a meme can take off.

Advertisers are in the business of producing memes. Crispin Porter + Bogusky, the darkly funky ad shop behind psychologically dissonant campaigns such as Burger King’s “King,” has a core strategy of always seeking buzz behind the paid communications — the goal of a meme replicating in society. Every “viral” campaign is a meme gone successful, if only for a fleeting moment.

But now individuals are getting in on the game. Like the soccer players in the Nike spot above, your personal future seems to hinge on whether you can send the right message about yourself to your networked peers, and have that idea scale until they erect statues of you in a public square. Lady Gaga is the best current example, and say what you will of her pop hits, you probably want to be as famous. The challenge, of course, is that in a world of limited communication inventory, the rising supply of memes and the falling demand of consumers to absorb what other people say (since they are creating their own stories) mean the value of any message has fallen. The odds of winning the meme game are shrinking because the number of slots spinning on each cultural concept wheel has multiplied. The players on the field have grown too numerous. Still, go ahead, idea-makers: kick the meme ball.

Adidas whacks Nike with a lightsaber

“What the hell?” you think, watching TIE fighters zoom over Snoop Dogg and David Beckham with an urban backbeat. And then it clicks: Adidas is moving in on Nike one sports demo at a time. In January 2006 it bought Reebok, bringing total athletic shoe sales to No. 2 in the world. In April the same year it won an 11-year deal to be the official sponsor of the National Basketball Association. Adidas is all over Major League Soccer, in 2007 it announced a move into lacrosse, and it recently began stuffing computer chips and kangaroo leather into its highest-end shoes seeking halo differentiation. It now has little kids covered with a Disney tie-in. So, how to get more attention?

Star Wars! Um … Star Wars? Adidas’ new Darth Vadar mask seems curious, since the last Star Wars film was released in May 2005, until you realize it’s a smart tactic for infusing Adidas’ brand with a meme we all love. What better brand to jack up Adidas adrenaline than a big-bold outer space dream filled with fight scenes? And since nothing happens with Star Wars without George Lucas’s approval, it also makes you wonder … is more to come from the franchise, perhaps the 3-D film versions Lucas hinted about back in 2005? Is Adidas an early blip on the Luke Skywalker master marketing calendar?

Adidas’ current marketing slogan is “Impossible is Nothing.” That’s not as catchy as Nike’s old “Just Do It,” but as far as catching Nike, Adidas has $15.2 billion in sales vs. Nike’s $19.1 billion. Maybe nothing is impossible.

Via @chicalibre and AdRants.

Dear Batgirl, are memes fading?

We miss Batgirl. You see, when we were kids in the 1970s (yes, we admit it), Batman reruns on TV were big after school, just as in primetime Happy Days was the big thing on TV. We went “pow” in the schoolyard fighting like Robin. Schoolkids would come in after a showing of the Fonz recounting the latest hip saying. After one Happy Days episode, where naive teenager Richie helped a geeky relative get cool by catching pennies falling off his elbow, we spent the better part of a week’s recess trying to grab 30 or 40 coins. (OK, to try this, put your right arm straight up; bend your forearm back over your shoulder; your forearm should now be horizontal with the ground, with your elbow in front of you about eye level; now stack a series of coins above your elbow, then rapidly swing your arm forward and try to catch the coins in mid-air before they pass your waist and hit the ground…)

You get it. That was a meme.

We see fewer and fewer memes, or cultural viruses, coming from mass media. In the 1980s and early 1990s, Saturday Night Live on NBC was one launching pad for cultural pass-alongs, and hip comedians could get everyone saying the same things on Mondays. The Blues Brothers, Wayne’s World, Stuart Smally, all were comic riffs that people for some reason wanted to emulate. Alas, memes, those cultural ideas spread from one person to another like early Christianity or healthcare death panels, are getting harder to propagate with the fragmentation of media. While every ad agency in the land professes to help you build viral campaigns, we often wonder if “viral” has become totally randomized. Like the H1N1 Swine Flu, communication viruses mutate randomly until they eventually create the perfect version to become embedded in the culture of the moment. Because consumers themselves are creating so much content, their missives are just as likely to grab culture’s attention as anything a media conglomerate dreams up.

The bell curve front matches the back

If you work in marketing, sales or advertising, you’re in the business of memes, whether you know it or not. Your job is to influence people by spreading ideas, and yes you hope that they send those ideas on to others — that’s a meme. Alas, compounding the problem for marketers seeking to seed fads or needs or desires is that the lifespan of communal ideas is becoming truncated. Studies have shown that plotting the rise and fall of a viral phenomenon over time is equally as steep on the uptick as it is in the downswing. The Beatles gradually became a sensation and endured for decades. Skittles came and went in a week. If something suddenly becomes popular, it is just as likely to fade quickly. Culture, like the human body’s autoimmune system, can even reject memes if they seem too foreign; a dispassionate observer might argue Fox News’ and conservatives’ harsh rejection of plans to extend health insurance to 46 million citizens are a culture’s autoimmune system defense to a foreign object: an ethnic president from Chicago trying to expand urban support systems onto rural America. The issue of healthcare reform crested suddenly and unexpectedly this summer in the press, and just as quickly counter-forces drove the issue down in the polls. It wasn’t right or wrong; health care was just a meme that rose too high too fast, and fell off the logical popular cliff on the backside.

Easy come, easy go

So how do you get memes going? Here’s an interesting test if you are a marketer about to hire an agency to give you a social media “viral” campaign. Ask your agency, which is bragging about number of impressions and scope of “engagement” from its last viral successes, to plot the timeline of its past campaigns. Was it months? Weeks? Days? Hmm.

Add it up and we have fewer central cultural communication Petri dishes to seed memes; fragmented media which randomizes what gets transmitted; masses of consumers creating their own content just as likely to go viral; and shortened attention spans meaning even if your meme does succeed, it is likely to quickly fade. It’s not easy to bend culture to your will. The only solution we see is to continue to experiment, and to allow the masses of consumers who now have control over media tools the power to manipulate and play with your idea. Like a virus mutating, eventually something will form that takes creation tension too far until society goes boom. All of which reminds us that we miss Batgirl.

Patrick Swayze’s dirtiest dancing

Whether you work in advertising, write editorial or jot blogs, your real goal is to create memes: cultural ideas that (you hope) are passed from one mind to another. More than impressions, readers, or sales, the real goal of any content creator is to influence society — to get everyone to believe his or her idea/religion/product is worth sharing with others. Memes (pronounced like “beams”) were coined by Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene, which explored the transmission of ideas within culture.

Tonight, scanning Twitter, we learned Patrick Swayze had died 20 minutes before CNN reported it. And then, just as quickly, one of Swayze’s funniest moments began being referenced — his old Saturday Night Live skit with Chris Farley. A meme we can’t forget, or stop laughing at. RIP, Mr. Swayze, and you too, Mr. Farley. Meme on.

"25 Things" goes viral, but only after mutations


If you want your message to go wild, you have to let other people mess up your message.

That’s the lesson from Slate’s analysis of the evolutionary roots of Facebook’s “25 Things” craze — a silly meme in which people online asked other people to write two dozen-plus bits about their personal lives. “25 Things” was a viral message, or bit of culture that spreads like a biological infection among the human population, cresting and falling like an epidemic.

What’s interesting is when Slate searched for the root cause of “25 Things” it found the idea didn’t start with 25 items — the idea of asking friends to tell X number of things about themselves, and then invite others, has been bouncing around for years. In 2008 there was a chain letter requesting 16 things; in December Twitter friends began asking each other to write seven. The concept mutated, like any disease, until it found just the right recipe of virus — apparently 25 — that allowed it to spike across the population.

Slate spoke to Lauren Ancel Meyers, a biology professor at University of Texas, who models infectious diseases. She mapped out the epidemic curve of the “25 Things” meme and found that at its height of growth, every user successfully got 1.27 other users to write their own stories. However after only two weeks, the fad crested around Jan. 30, then collapsed.

Marketers interested in making messages go viral should note that this meme didn’t scale until it had evolved from numerous strains — 7, 16 — that failed. The implication for advertisers trying to launch the next big craze is it is not enough to have one really cool idea — instead, launch a whole bunch, let people play with the messages, until Darwinian evolution tweaks one just right into a virus the population simply cannot resist. We always knew you can’t control viral propagation; we knew you had to seed the messages everywhere including in blogs; now, apparently to succeed virally, you also have to give up control over the content.

Photo: Gaetan Lee