A casual observer might think Western culture is going nuts. JC Penney tweets typos drunkenly during the Super Bowl. Actor Shia LaBeauf walks out of a film festival with a paper bag on his head. Miley Cyrus gives America erotic dancing on a major awards show and starts sticking her tongue out in every photo. And Sports Illustrated puts a Barbie doll on its annual swimsuit cover.
Yet this is all sanity. These are all careful attempts to game the limited attention span of consumers by seeding provocative memes. You’re being played, people.
A meme is a concept by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins that information passes through society similar to genes or viruses — evolving, striving to thrive and spread, but often failing. When memes succeed, millions of people change their behavior: Handshakes become fist bumps, baseball caps get worn backward instead of forwards, men begin pairing blue jeans with blazers, women begin wearing knee-high boots in winter. At a certain point, like an epidemic of the flu, the information “tips” into mass adoption. Marketers love this concept, of course, because it requires zero advertising budget — and the Holy Grail of any campaign is to get the world to buy your product out of simple collective desire.
The challenge for meme adoption, like the spread of anything, is physics. Friction slows momentum. There is a basic formula for how information goes viral, and for when it slows down, which is:
Viral spread = (Message generation rate – Absorption rate) * Cycle time
or more succinctly
V = (M-A) * C
As I wrote back in 2010, computer security companies such as Symantec use this formula to predict when a computer virus will spread or fade. In simple terms, if the message generation rate from node to node, or person to person, exceeds the absorption rate, the message will spread. But if the “absorption rate,” or percent of people in the passalong chain who get bored and stop sharing the message, exceeds those who do pass the message, the viral idea will stall. And cycle time, of course, is simply the speed of passage. Tweets that get buzz during the Super Bowl have a fast cycle time because millions of people are scanning Twitter for a fun idea at the same time; religion, one of the most successful memes in history, has a slower cycle time but is comparatively more stable.
Nice cuffed jeans, champ
Oh how marketers want to become the next meme. Do you wear a tie to business meetings? That’s a meme that’s stuck in your head, men. Women, do you wear eyeliner? Meme. Hipsters, have you started cuffing the bottoms of your jeans? Welcome to an emerging meme. Have you noticed that eyeglass frames are getting much bigger in the past two years, approaching 1950s plastic dimensions? Uh-huh. The pressure of collective adoption is changing your behavior without you even realizing it.
You, dear consumer, are a meme sucker.
The trouble that marketers face in trying to push their next product through this meme cycle is the absorption rate in society today is huge, and rises quickly as attention moves on to the next news item. There are simply too many messages competing for our attention for us to adopt and pass along every one. So the best way to get buzz is to create a message so shocking that it will jack up the message generation rate rapidly. And ideally, you’d do this during an event where mass attention is heightened — which will boost cycle time as well.
This is why JC Penney tweeted drunkenly during the Super Bowl (in what turned out to be a promotion for mittens). This is why Miley Cyrus shook her booty in a skin-toned suit to recast her persona during the MTV Video Music Awards. Shock + major period of mass attention = high potential for meme success.
These were not crazy mistakes of judgment, but calculated attempts to boost the meme propagation rate of a brand, to get everyone in society talking about an issue, with the frosting of controversy spread over the deep cake of commerce.
It works sometimes, but with so much meme competition, marketers will have to continue to raise the shock value.
Here’s to seeing Barbie next year covered only in body paint.