39215-grumpy-cat-no-VyfjSteve Hamilton, Digital Media Director

The Internet is a pretty crazy place. Filled to the brim with potential customers, stories, and publicity. All you have to do is go out and grab it! So, you’re the public relations team for a company or brand, and you’re tasked with creating some online buzz that appeals to Internet savvy users, and the youth of the world. “I’ve got it!” one of your team members says with a smile. “We’ll capitalize on those memes! Kids LOVE memes!” Everyone around applauds, and you get to thinking about which confession bear or other repetitious, beating a dead horse joke bandwagon to jump on and watch as all these kids pour money into your business. Except, that’s not how it’s going to work. What’s going to end up happening is you’re going to look very out of place and out of touch with reality. You’re going to end up less cool than before you started this “hip” appeal.

Before we discuss the reasons this failure is inevitable, a very quick lesson on what a “meme” is for the uninitiated. The definition of meme states: “an element of a culture or system of behavior that may be considered to be passed from one individual to another by nongenetic means, especially imitation.” What does that have to do with an Internet meme? An Internet meme is quite simply a joke that follows an extremely rigid structure. It’s a joke that has a set formula that has one variable that users can change, and then share their creation. Either the setup is identical and the punchline changes, or vice versa. Because of this, the jokes get played out pretty quickly as if you’ve seen one you’ve seen them all. There are even websites that facilitate this process, with a huge library of image macros to choose from, then you add your text and boom, you’ve made a meme.

So because of this easily editable structure, companies have decided that with one simple tweak they can make the meme suit their brand message and all the kids will get with it. The lack of effort aside, the real problem is a lack of understanding. Memes are considered to be an inside joke, and brands or companies that use them for advertising purposes are treading in hostile territory. I have never once seen a company use a meme that didn’t immediately make me think some poor middle aged online marketer being told “Make a meme about our product.” It’s not an effective way to get your brand story across, even if it were to magically work. How does a single line of text on an image tell me enough about your brand to be interested in it? Especially because you don’t have any freedom in the structure of the meme, you have to conform to the “rules” of the particular meme, because if you don’t, you’ll face even more backlash for doing it wrong.

Look around a bit and you’ll see plenty of these marketing gaffes, and try not to cringe too hard. You’ll see politicians trying to be relatable, companies trying to force memes to be about them, and even things like university textbooks trying to capitalize on memes to make their lessons easier to understand.

The moral of the story: If someone wants you to use a meme, you’re one Google search away from all the failures in the past to show exactly why you shouldn’t.