Memes: The Advertiser's new best friend. (Image by Diego Camacho)


To meme and sell: The future of advertisement

Ads. At times, a light-hearted attempt to get you to buy, and sometimes bordering on propaganda itself, these darlings of capitalism are essential to how we sell and consume. As the advertisement industry has grown in importance, so has its reach to the average consumer. Nowadays, an advertisement can be seen everywhere- on our phones,…
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Diego Camacho

April 14, 2021


At times, a light-hearted attempt to get you to buy, and sometimes bordering on propaganda itself, these darlings of capitalism are essential to how we sell and consume. As the advertisement industry has grown in importance, so has its reach to the average consumer. Nowadays, an advertisement can be seen everywhere- on our phones, on city streets, billboards, cereal boxes, mass entertainment.

Many seek refuge from a relentless advertisement by consuming memes, videos made by their favorite online personalities, and the many other forms of content that a democratized internet permits. Here, seemingly out of reach for corporate interests, content is pure and without ulterior motives.

Or is it?

Normal ads: The old medium

To many, the old mediums of entertainment, particularly television, have become inaccessible.

One could describe TV in its most basic and rudimentary form as corporate-funded programing intermingled with advertisement. As a consumer, you have very little control over what you will ultimately watch, and the scale of the TV entertainment industry is too large to be accessible to the small creator.

These factors are what make TV a phenomenal medium to advertise through, as all the control falls to those broadcasting the entertainment. Regardless of ratings or watch time, before the internet age, there was no better substitute to the particular form of entertainment that TV offered. Most had to contend with what they got.

Then came the internet, slowly maturing and opening doors to new ways information could be shared. In the present day, the internet has largely consolidated, and its growth is set to phase out the old medium of TV soon.

However, as any avid internet user can tell you, the internet has already become saturated in many of the practices we had become used to from TV; ads on video-sharing platforms, sponsors, studio-produced internet content.

The now largely forgotten attempt by the FCC to repeal net neutrality in 2017 is perhaps the greatest example of the attempted “televisionizing” of the internet. Had the regulation of network neutrality passed, it is probable that the internet may have become much more like cable. It is not surprising to see that some major supporters of this attempted change of policy were telecommunication giants with footholds on the TV entertainment markets.

So, you’re a company looking to keep yourself afloat. Your classical medium of TV and radio is not getting the attention that it should. You acknowledge that the internet is the future of entertainment and information sharing.

So, how do you advertise your content in an environment where what most people consume is made by similar, small-scale individuals? How do you maneuver around the most democratized entertainment platforms to have ever existed?


Subtle ads: Masquerading as content

Memes as comedic entertainment are about the most democratized form of comedy out there. Conceptually, memes are created by people, for the enjoyment of people, with the intended effect of being shared by people. They are easy and quick to make, allowing memes to saturate the internet and die quickly, giving them a phoenix-like life-cycle of creation, stagnation and death.

However, the general notion that memes can have no ulterior motives and are simple, community-created pieces of entertainment is flawed. Memes are most often compared to jokes when discussing their power to influence, but even then, such a comparison is not accurate enough.

Memes are entirely by themselves as a byproduct of internet culture and instantaneous information sharing. They are a completely new cultural phenomenon. It is perhaps this naivety towards memes that makes them such effective tools for influencing, and in this case, advertisement.

This small sample of memes about the 2021 “Godzilla vs. King Kong” film was collected from five minutes of browsing Instagram. (Diego Camacho)

This does not mean to say that the recent “Godzilla vs. King Kong” film purposefully utilized the medium of memes to advertise its film, but the effect that this online discourse had on the film’s final profitability is undeniable.

“Godzilla vs. King Kong” is on its way to becoming the most profitable film during the pandemic and has succeeded at the box office on release. It cannot be denied that memes such as the ones above played an instrumental role in bringing this film into the collective consciousness, and giving it the popularity to succeed.

It could be argued that memes inadvertently “advertised” the film, without any monetary compensation to their individual creators, in a completely “hands-free” way. For companies looking to advertise their products, what better form of advertisement exists than one where the audience itself advertises for you?

Yet another phenomenal example of the use of memes as ads is the infamous category of “brand twitter.” To summarize what is a peculiar and developing internet phenomenon, major brands have taken to social media platforms such as Twitter to interact with their communities.

In what seems to be endless banter between these official brand pages and their users, is fierce competition to “out-meme” each other. These brand pages have prioritized creating the most meme-able content for one reason: the attention it gets sells.

A collection of the worst tweets from official brand pages on Twitter. (Diego Camacho)

Perhaps the single most blatant example of the use of memes to sell a product is the official “Slim Jim” Instagram page. This account has amassed significant popularity, and all its memes tie into its official product of “meat jerky.”

Unsurprisingly, many of its most popular memes go on to be shared by pages not affiliated with the official “Slim Jim” marketing team, effectively advertising their product for free.

The wildly successful “Slim Jim” meme page. (Image courtesy of BetterMarketing)

Ads: Going forward

It is an unremarkable claim to state that the internet will become the primary method of advertisement because it already is. Instead, it is better to assume that memes will become the primary method of advertisement online. Given the relative infancy of the medium in general, there is very little precedent for what can or can not be done through the democratized medium of internet joke-sharing.

Are memes nearing a point of no return, where power returns to the hands of corporations, as they use their immense monetary influence to once again grasp onto this medium of entertainment, as they have done before with TV or radio? What will happen to memes and the culture behind them? Has this already happened, or will it only become more blatant?

Memes are playing an ever-increasing role in influencing culture. While they may seem innocuous and light-hearted, we mustn’t ignore the tremendous potential they have to change minds. For advertisement, politics and anything in general, memes are yet another medium to spread ideas.

Let meme-caution be advised.