Memes, Marketing and Methods of Communication

Memes have become an important feature of communication over the Internet. For public relations and advertising professionals they subsequently represent another opportunity. To succeed in memetic marketing/memevertising requires originality and mass appeal, however, making the practice exceptionally difficult.

The concept of a “meme” was coined by Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene, to explain the ways cultural information spreads. Internet memes are derived from this concept to describe catchphrases, media, images or activities that become popularised on the Internet. Memes typically spread from person to person via social networks, blogs, forums and e-mail. To create a clear picture of the different types of Internet memes and to highlight their common characteristics I have listed a few examples below.

  • Activity memes: one of the best examples of this type of meme is planking, which became very popular between 2008 and 2011. As the image depicts, its an activity that involves lying face down in an incongruous setting. Over time the places in which people were planking became increasingly ridiculous, as it became a contest of one-upmanship, as the image below demontrates. Other ‘activity’ memes include the “Harlem Shake” meme, “Neknominate” and flash mobbing.


  • Image macros: a lot of people misconceive this as the only type of meme, reflected by the top Google searches. Featuring the image of a person/celebrity/fictional character with a particular expression that reflects a certain mood/attitude, it is supplemented with text that begins with the character’s catchphrase. For memes featuring a celebrity or well-known fictional character, an aspect of their perceived personality is exaggerated, which in some instances has had the effect of redefining their image and even role in pop culture. A prime example of this is Xzibit, whose rap career has waned since The Chronic 2001 and whose celebrity status was only maintained by re-runs of Pimp My RideThe meme below features an image of him with his meme catchphrase “yo dawg”. The meme has re-established Xzibit as an Internet character, which he has no active role in maintaining or controlling. Other popular meme characters include Bad Luck Brian, Futurama Fry and First World Problems.


  • Phrase or saying memes: a certain phrase or saying that has become popularised and frequently used on the Internet, usually as a result of a viral video. An example is the video of the Charlie Sheen interview below, which popularised “Winning”, “Tiger’s Blood” and “Andonis DNA”. Another prominent phrase meme is the “Chuck Norris Facts” meme.


Meme series have become an important part of the way we communicate on the Internet, as they facilitate an uncomplicated form of language that allows us to share our humour, entertaining acts and opinions with large online communities. For example, instead of sharing a joke through regular written sentences, you can appropriate the joke into an already popular meme through a meme generator. By doing so, you can make the joke more accessible and relatable.

By their very nature memes reach a large number of people. The potential to do this has not been lost on marketers, as they have embraced memes as a form of guerrilla and viral marketing to generate buzz for their products or services.

Ideally, marketers would like to begin their own meme series, giving continuous exposure to their product or service as more people participate in and contribute to the meme. As you can imagine, making this happen is incredibly difficult. Thus most marketers settle for hijacking pre-existing meme series.

I’ve listed some examples of successful memetic marketing, which demonstrate how to do it right:

  •  Dreamworks: To promote their 2011 film Puss in Boots Dreamworks used the Old Spice Man meme (which spawned from the famous commercial) to generate publicity. The use of the meme was both timely and humorous.


  • Virgin Media: in 2011 the British media company launch a billboard campaign featuring the popular “Success Kid” meme to promote their Pay TV service.


  • World of Warcraft: In 2011, the popular computer game capitalised on the ‘Chuck Norris Facts’ meme to create a humorous commercial which imagines Chuck Norris as a character in the game.



The rise of memetic marketing demonstrates yet another way in which public relations and advertising have adapted to modes of communication on the Internet. The relatively low cost of memetic marketing makes it an attractive form of promotion, but as with all viral marketing, the execution is exceptionally difficult. The marketers who succeed use meme series that are peaking in popularity and contribute something worthwhile – not just advertise their product or service.


Using #HASHTAGS For Social Media Campaigns

The Internet has birthed a number of new modes and means of communication. On social media, one of the most important means is hashtagging. Such is its prominence in the vocabulary of social media, it has now also become an important part of how public relations and advertising professionals connect with consumers. If used correctly, hashtags can capture a large audience, giving companies a significant platform to communicate their key messages. Used poorly, and a hashtag can lead to negative publicity and sentiment. I will attempt to uncover how PR and advertising professionals can leverage hashtags effectively.

Surprisingly, it was not until 2009 that Twitter introduced hyperlinked hashtags, allowing users to search for topics or issues that are being tweeted about. Soon after other major social media platforms such as Facebook and Instagram also began to introduce hashtags. They have since become a powerful vehicle for mobilising support for causes and movements, as they allow users to connect with other users beyond their own ‘friends’ or ‘followers’. By simply adding a hashtag to a word or phrase, you can start a new topic/movement which anyone can contribute to. The potential to reach a large group of people interested in the same issue/topic/hobby was not lost on the corporate world, as hashtags have become an important part of their marketing communications strategies.


Indeed, many companies active on social media have attempted to capitalise on potential of hashtags. According to an analysis conducted by Simply Measured, 97% of the world’s top 100 brands posted at least one tweet that included a hashtag. They use them to promote products, generate brand awareness or weigh in on an issue. To illustrate how influential hashtagging has become to companies and an idea of how to successfully use hashtags, I will outline 3 hashtag fails and successes from the last few years.


  • McDonalds: in January 2014 the company’s social media team started the hashtag #McDStories on Twitter, intended to give fans a platform to share their good experiences with the fast food chain. Instead, the hashtag was overwhelmingly used to share bad experiences such as these below.


  • Qantas: in 2011 the airline started the hashtag #QantasLuxury, whereby travellers could win a free pair of first class pyjamas if they wrote a tweet about what Qantas luxury meant to them. This attempt to generate goodwill for Qantas backfired horribly. The airline had just left over 60,000 people stranded at various airports across the world, leading people to use Twitter and the hashtag to voice their disappointment. This hashtag exacerbated the negative sentiment towards Qantas, and was awarded PR disaster of the year.


  • Blackberry: the company used to be operated by parent company ‘Research in Motion’. To promote jobs within the organisation on Twitter the hashtag #RIMJobs was conceived. Needless to say, it was a PR disaster.


  • Charmin: In 2013 the U.S. toilet paper company launched the Twitter hashtag #tweetfromtheseat. The humorous hashtag tapped into research conducted by Time magazine that 40% of young people tweet from the toilet. The company also offered six Super Bowl tickets for the best stories. The hashtag proved to be a success, gaining many contributors with funny stories. It served to display Charmin’s sense of humour and personality.


  • Domino’s Pizza U.K.: In 2012 the pizza company started hashtag #letsdolunch on Twitter. It gave users a reason to tweet: cheaper pizza. From 9am to 11am on March 5, the price of the Pepperoni Passion Pizza was reduced by one pence every time someone used the hashtag. The hashtag received over 85,000 tweets, reducing the price of the pizza from £15.99 to £7.74 for 11am to 3pm that day.
  • Ben & Jerry’s: in 2011 the ice cream company launched the hashtag campaign #FairTweets. Coinciding with World Fair Trade Day, the company set up a microsite where users could type their tweets. Any tweets shy of the maximum 140 characters would be filled by Ben & Jerry’s with a plug for Fair Trade Day.


The Power of Hashtags

These fails and successes illustrate the power and influence of hashtags on social media. By exposing your opinions to users beyond your followers, you are also exposed to wider criticism. Thus campaigns must be carefully thought through. These are the major lessons social media PR and advertising can take from these examples:

  • Give users an incentive to use the hashtag. Whether this is by offering discounted/free goods or contributing to a good cause, users have no reason to care about your campaign otherwise.
  • Make it fun. Domino’s made it a competition and Charmin made it humorous. On the other hand, McDonalds wanted users to contribute their good experiences with the fast-food company. As the epitome of fast-food – unhealthy, cheap, poor quality – this was an awful idea and simply not interesting at all.
  • Be careful about the wording of the hashtag. A hashtag like #RimJobs is just asking for trouble.
  • The timing must be right. Like any marketing/PR campaign it makes no sense to launch a campaign in the midst of bad press, as Qantas should have known. Also, timing the campaign to coincide with a major event can be an easy way of attracting users, as Ben & Jerry’s did.

How companies have used hashtags demonstrates the power hashtags now have on social media as a means of communication. The campaigns that failed led to negative publicity, which had an effect on the perception of the brands beyond Twitter. Successful campaigns can be equally powerful, resulting in positive publicity and brand awareness.


The Future of Print Journalism Pt 2: Business Models

Online news: the way of the future

In my last post I briefly mentioned the driving force behind the decline in print journalism – declining advertising dollars. In this post I will explore the different models newspapers can adopt in order to survive in the Internet age. I will examine the merits and disadvantages of each, and determine their feasibility.

As my last post established, newspapers need to adapt and offer content online. A failure to do so will most likely lead to the inevitable: death. These are some of the options that I’ve found:

  1. Free or discounted hardware with contracts for content

Involves paying for content by signing up to a contract. You are then given a free or heavily discounted iPad or other portable tablet device, which will act as a ‘modern newspaper’.

Some consider the iPad the modern newspaper

The problem with this model is that it limits the number of potential readers. A Nielson survey conducted in 52 countries found that in 2011 80% of consumers would cease to use a website that charges. As a consequence, this model is highly unlikely to attract new readers. Further, 71% of respondents say online content must be considerably better than what is offered for free before they pay for it. Hence, there is a heavy reliance on producing high quality content, and a lack of quality from competitors or substitutes that offer free content.

  1. Micropayments

This model involves paying to read each article. Typically, there will be a number of free articles, allowing for new readers to become engaged with a newspaper’s (or, more aptly, news site’s) content. Theoretically, once a consumer becomes an engaged reader they will then be willing to pay for the “exclusive” articles. This model represents the halfway point between paying for content and a free-for-all system. The only lingering question is whether it can generate enough revenue to be sustainable.

  1. Tiered (or metered) system

The tiered model gives readers free access to a number of articles. For example, free access to the first 20 articles a month and then starts charging beyond that point. The central problem with this model is that it punishes engaged readers. Instead of rewarding good behaviour – reading a lot of articles – it charges for the privilege. On a basic psychological level this encourages engaged readers to look elsewhere for their news. The New York Times implemented this system in 2005 with ‘Time Select’, which was abandoned in 2007, due to its ineffectiveness. Fairfax newspapers The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age and others currently use this system. It remains to be seen whether it will be financially successful long-term, however. Given the number of journalists that have been recently laid off, it appears unlikely.

  1. Day pass

Users are charged only on the days when they access the content. In other words, they subscribe for 6 months, but a day is only counted if you actually access the content. This model has all the same problems as the first.

  1. Customized content

The customized content model allows each user to select the content they will subscribe to by topic. For example, they may wish to only read the sport section, so they are able to subscribe to only this content. They will be charged based on the number of sections they wish to access.

  1. Free online access for print subscribers

This model is simple: if you have a newspaper subscription, you can access the online content for free. The motive behind this model is to attempt to save print newspapers. For readers there is greater inventive to pay for a subscription than to go online for the publication. This model is at odds with the increasingly common consumer habit of going online for news.

  1. Free for all

The free-for-all model sounds nice for users. Unfortunately, the revenue generated by online advertising is not enough to make it a very attractive option. It isn’t the worst model though. Adopted by the United Kingdom’s pre-eminent intellectual newspaper, The Guardian, they posted very worrying losses last year. Nevertheless, this model has a view to long-term sustainability. While online advertising does not generate anywhere near as much as print advertising at the moment, the amount of money being spent on it has been increasing dramatically year on year over the last 5 years.

As part of The Guardian’s strategy, they also aim to expand their readership into new markets. Indeed, with a larger readership base comes greater online advertising money. Thus far they have expanded into Australia, the U.S. and are beginning their expansion into Asia. It is an ambitious and bold strategy, but with the drastic decline in print journalism dollars it may prove to be the only way to survive.

In the video below New Yorker journalist, Ken Auletta, and New York Times editor David Carr, debate the effectiveness of the subscription model and the free for all. As they point out, The Guardian aims to first build their readership, then they will probably begin charging on a subscription model. Ideally, by this stage they will have the largest readership of any newspaper in the world. They will then be able to capture more value than ever.


It is unclear which model will prove to be most sustainable. Each have significant drawbacks that threaten long-term financial sustainability. My guess: it will require a combination of a few, and constant adaptation to meet consumer needs and the competitive environment. It is likely that many newspapers will not be able to survive through these changes, as they confront the toughest period print journalism has ever faced.