On the Bandwagon: When to Utilize Memes for Advertising, and When Not To

Watching a successful meme make its way through the Internet proves that once out of their owner’s hands, memes indeed have lives of their own. Memes are by definition viral (read: they grow exponentially), which makes them the ideal vehicle for advertising. But when should you use a meme, and when should you refrain?
Usually, a meme begins with an image that someone finds funny, but that is ambiguous enough to work in a large variety of contexts. Let’s take Success Kid for example – a beach photo of a toddler turned into one of the most memorable memes of all time. Soon, Virgin Mobile did this:
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The meme worked well in this case, because of the universal nature of the photo: those that didn’t get it still thought the photo was funny, and those that did got a kick out of the fact that a major company was essentially making an inside joke.
Another successful use of a meme was the Keyboard Cat for Pistachios commercial.
Keyboard Cat had been making its way around the Internet for many years before Pistachios decided to use it. Notice that again, the ad is hilarious even if you don’t know about the meme. Who doesn’t love musically-inclined cats?!
But sometimes, the use of memes for advertising purposes doesn’t quite work. One example we didn’t particularly care for was Chuck Norris’s spot for World of Warcraft.
By the time this ad came out in 2011, the Chuck Norris meme had been done to death, so the ad appeared stale and as a case of trying too hard to be cool. (Unearthing a less referenced 80’s action hero worked extremely well for Volvo though.)
With all this in mind, here are four general rules to consider before you attempt to hijack a meme for advertising purposes:

  1. Understand the Meme You might have noticed we linked all the above memes to the website knowyourmeme.com, which is basically a giant meme encyclopedia. Before you attempt to use a meme, make sure you understand where it comes from, how to use it, and whether it fits your brand image.
  2. Mind the Copyright It might be hard to believe, but memes that have been adopted and recreated by thousands of people can still be under copyright by the original owner (Success Kid certainly is, and Virgin probably paid handsomely for its use). Why should you care about legal repercussions when all those other users don’t? For one, you’re trying to turn a profit from the meme, which makes you a much better target for legal action.
  3. Keep it Friendly The reason both Success Kid and Keyboard Cat made successful ads is that they’re lovable even to those seeing them for the first time. Keep your meme on the cute/funny/harmless side of the spectrum instead of going with one of the edgier memes that could potentially offend someone. (Unless, of course, the edginess is a part of your brand.)
  4. Don’t Pick Something Overdone The key to meme advertising stardom is to either choose something new and trending, or bring back something that has gone out of fashion. Between these two points is a sea of overdone memes (see: Chuck Norris, Most Interesting Man in the World) that are so obvious that any attempt to use them comes off as lame.

If you’re going to go through with it and use a meme for advertising purposes, this website makes creating your own meme easier than ever. All you need to do is pick the meme, put some text into boxes, and Voila!, your very own meme. Don’t say we didn’t warn you though–once it’s out of the gate, a meme has a life of its own!
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