The era where anyone could make a meme and guarantee laughs is gone. Nowadays, marketing experts are finding themselves trying to make memes for teens and young adults without offending or confusing the rest of their potential audience.
Still, sometimes they do a good job, and the line between naturally sourced and artificial memes becomes blurry.
Artificially Created Memes
Firstly, let me define what I mean by ‘artificial memes’. A normal, “organic” meme is normally made by someone unaffiliated with the brand of said meme. For example, the team behind Among Us is not making the majority of the memes about Among Us, and any memes they do make are source-able right back to their Twitter or webpage. Ordinary, crowd-sourced memes dominate Among Us’s meme presence online, and the team’s contributions are welcome because it’s apparent that the memes are meant for fun, not advertising.
And then there’s the opposite: artificially made memes are memes that were made by someone within the brand the meme is affiliated with, and they try to hide the meme’s source so it seems like a natural, ordinary meme. There’s nothing wrong with a company flooding their own page with their own memes. That’s completely fine. It’s their account, whatever.
However, if those memes aren’t good or are too bland, most people recognize them as marketing first and memery second. It won’t ‘catch on’, and people won’t start creating and circulating their own, which is usually the whole point of artificial memes. Some companies mistakenly believe that by supplying memes to third-party Twitter accounts (and paying them to post the memes) that the memes will catch on that way. This assumes that the account is the problem, not mediocre, unfunny, or out-of-touch memes. Additionally, in an era where money ruins art and jokes, people generally recognize advert memes unless they’re really well done – they’re already primed to spot them and hate them almost on instinct. If they were good, they would have survived on the real account’s page. All advertising, no fun.
There’s a certain anti-corporation bend to most meme consumption. “I came to laugh, not to be advertised to. Silence, Brand.” If an organization really wants to seed their own memes, they have to do it discreetly. They have to hit the right notes. The era where a brand could just scatter-shot poor quality memes all over their own Twitter and guarantee a hit is gone.
Lil Nas X
Lil Nas X got it. He had (and still has) his finger on the pulse of Twitter. He memed on his own Top 40 song leading up to its release, Old Town Road. If you saw memes about it, that was no mistake, or happy accident – he did a lot of that himself. He’d spend hours a day just trying to pump up his presence online, using his content in hot formats. Eventually, they caught on. This is the ultimate goal of marketing with memes – people latch on to an idea the creator had and run with it, and then it begins circulating by itself.
It helped that the music was good and the man is funny, and able to tap directly into hot Twitter memes and accounts as they appear. Old Town Road was catchy, but campy! It was pop-country, too, and tapped into a segment of the population that didn’t hear that much of it. Twangy guitar and Billy Ray Cyrus with a hip hop vibe to it sounded very fresh and interesting, even to people who didn’t like pop-country.
Hard work. Good content. Fresh memes. It all worked in his favor.
The movie was alright. There were holes in it, but for a Netflix Original movie, it was decent. That being said, there were a lot of memes being made about it. A lot. A suspicious amount. Some of which used formats that were already dying out by the time they appeared on meme Twitters. Where Lil Nas X is posting himself, and creating memes himself, Bird Box had a marketing team trying to recreate what 15-30 year-olds find funny online.
It had moderate success; Angelina Jolie looks goofy in a blindfold, and that imagery is part of what made even this middling attempt work. They weren’t trying to recreate jokes written in the script, they were trying to meme angles of the movie that weren’t funny on their own – and a lot of the time, that’s how memes happen! Random scenes, lines taken out of context, funny expressions – still-image memes are rarely about jokes the movie made, they’re usually jokes about the movie. The campaign only felt fake because the movie has mixed reviews, so it’s unbelievable that this many memes would be made about it by that many dedicated fans… but they had to really pump up their online presence to sell it, so that’s a flaw of the method, not the memes themselves.
Hard work. Mediocre content. Decent memes. It worked out well, but was eventually recognized as a campaign and not an organic movement.
Fast and Furious
So, funny thing – when people joke about bad movies, they joke about how bad they are. Or they sarcastically say it was life-changing. “Sharknado is a cinematic masterpiece”, that’s what they say. They don’t say anything about the insides of a bad or mediocre movie, because that would mean that they actually watched the movie. Most memes for these ones only have information gleaned from the trailer.
Fast and Furious 9’s marketing department has obviously tried to dump memes into the meme ecosystem to boost marketing. The problem is that the memes don’t match ordinary meme formats, or even act as good jokes. Dom says “family” a lot. And? So what? He doesn’t say it enough for it to be a gag. The memes are attempting to reinforce an idea within the movie, not use it as a joke, which is not what memes do.
Memes are often transformative -but they’re usually transformative in a way that’s not to the show or movie’s benefit.
Secondly, F9 spoiled it’s own memes. Back when F6 came out, people joked about them going to the moon to somehow beat gang violence on Earth. You can’t seriously use suggestions from memes without making them tongue-in-cheek, and F9 didn’t do that. They honestly, intentionally, completely straight-facedly, went to outer space. F9 jumped the shark. How can you make fun of something that wasn’t joking, but knew that what it was doing was stupid? They knew going to space was stupid. They did it anyway, in some sort of pseudo-irony that makes memeing on it unfunny.
Anyway, the foundation for their memes is inherently weak. While it may seem nonsensical which scenes in what movies get memed and which don’t, there’s a complex system to the humor that sorts some memes to the top and others into the trash. Trying to isolate it and identify it is possible… but marketing experts get hung up on ‘understanding’ it above actually making it funny. Anything that people without Twitter could understand is immediately too bland for the regulars on Twitter.
Lack of research. Lack of content. Stale memes. It was recognized as a campaign immediately.
People were confused about Bird Box, but they were downright annoyed by the F9 memes!
Sonic The Hedgehog
Sonic’s original design was so completely awful that CGI artists had to work around the clock to ‘fix it’ and replace him with a cuter, less uncanny Sonic. The script didn’t have to change, but a totally digital character had to be replaced with another, differently proportioned digital character. That is a nightmare. And yet, the team pulled through after some delays and a lot of very long weeks, and the Sonic Movie came out right before quarantine set in across the US.
Sonic didn’t set out to make memes. Memes happened about Sonic.
Good memes praising the studio, or memes neutrally making fun of the old design scattered Twitter. The conditions to achieve such a positive campaign are very rare! It’s much harder to make fun of a team that’s genuinely trying than it is to make fun of a team that’s clearly phoning it in, and Sonic came across as earnest enough to earn its underdog story and the memes that came with it. F9 could never admit going to space was a bad idea. Even if it did, it would never redo the scene. Sonic The Hedgehog was willing to admit that the first design was a mistake, and spent a lot of time and effort fixing it so that audiences would like it more. Memes were poking fun at a bad initial decision, not the movie or the franchise itself.
Hard work, on the right things. Good content. Good memes.