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.