Will audiences ever accept brands using memes in ads?
Each week, The Drum asks agency experts from across the world and the ad business for their take on a tough question facing the industry, from topical concerns to perennial pain points.
How should agencies use memes – if at all? / The Drum
Vodafone Italy’s recent campaign featuring stock photography model András Arató, known on the web as ’Hide the pain Harold,’ served as a reminder that brands can, in fact, jump in on online conversations without incurring immediate cringe.
Few brands, in their advertising creative or social output, can manage such a trick. But memes, and the discourse they underpin, are a crucial element of modern communication. No organization wanting to participate in contemporary culture should ignore them outright. But how can agency creatives and brands utilize these tools without incurring the derision (or confusion) of their target audience?
How do you solve a problem like... putting memes into marketing?
Katie Hunter, social and influencer lead, Accenture Song
The dreaded ‘dad at a disco’ effect – it is a big risk. We know all too well the pressure (and often necessity) of staying in step with social culture; the challenge is doing that in a way that feels authentic as a brand, rather than trying to behave like a consumer.
Does a meme (and the observational humor key to that) fit with your brand’s tone of voice? Would you be involved in that conversation without that meme format? If not, I’d steer clear. I don’t believe that consumers hate seeing brands in their feeds, but I think transparency and self-awareness are vital.
Jim Stump, creative director, The&Partnership
Memes offer advertisers an open door to be part of conversations people are already having. It is a chance to not come across as ‘that sofa company’ trying to flog you another couch. But beware – going through that door enters you into a contract, so either join in with a fresh perspective or risk the wrath of those who see through your veiled efforts.
Vicky Murfitt, senior copywriter, and Paul Crump, senior art director, Digitas
A few years ago, the answer would’ve been a hard ‘no.’ Just like it was when we were asked to put an emoji in a headline. But we’ve softened.
The reality is memes get to the point. And we share them. Regularly. Break them down and they’re a great image with a punchy headline. Done well, they’re humorous, they’re relatable, they’re timely and, importantly, enormously shareable – enviable, right?
If you use them in an equally timely fashion, there’s a place for them.
Frederico Roberto, commerce creative director, Publicis.Poke
Over the past few years we’ve witnessed the rise of ‘the people’s creativity’ through the likes of Reddit and TikTok: sometimes for social commentary, sometimes just for the sake of trolling. By connecting cultural dots that no one thought of or saw before, a meme is all about taking something that’s already extremely popular and twisting it – or elevating it – into a new story. Take the recent TikTok trend ‘He’s a 10 but...’: we had some fun with this for our client Takis during July’s heatwave.
Christian Pierre, chief digital intelligence officer, Gut Miami
Memes have become the best and fastest representation of what’s happening at any given moment in culture.
When a brand forces a product message in a meme, they become the meme themselves. You can tell a brand’s ‘age’ by their meme savvyness – or lack thereof. Brands should be leaning more toward entertaining than selling, and if they do that, their messages will be delivered successfully.
Molly Barth, senior cultural strategist, Sparks & Honey
The irony of memes is that they’re not always as lighthearted and funny as people think. Oftentimes memes are used by communities to express collective trauma, or find humor amid shared mental health issues. So before you consider adding a meme to a campaign, carefully consider the cultural context where a particular meme sits.
Courtney Berry, managing director, Barbarian
There’s a difference between integrating topical culture into your marketing and leveraging memes. I’m a fan of the former if the execution is flawless, not so much a fan of the latter – especially when marketers hijack internet culture for other mediums to ‘reach Gen Z.’
Memes typically have a life cycle decided by the internet that is entirely unpredictable. Memes have a specific and intended audience, and should only be leveraged when the crossover is natural and the humor can be nailed. But, more importantly, be fast.
Edd Weller, global head of partnerships, Carat
Brands have been in equal part rewarded and ridiculed for their attempts at participation, but with the albeit delayed deprecation of cookies, our learnings in emotional and contextual targeting will serve brands well when it comes to being current and relevant in order to maximize this medium in the media mix.
As with everything, context and nuance are key to success; especially in such a fast-paced environment and with a vocal and empowered audience. Tech advancements in dynamic creative, coupled with deep proprietary data insights, mean we have the capabilities to deliver now – but are only just scratching the surface of the full potential offered by this format.
Zoe Osinnowo, head of influencer marketing and business inclusivity lead, FCB Inferno
Memes don’t need to be avoided, but like many areas, it all comes down to context. What were the original circumstances the meme appeared in? What was the audience’s reaction? Is the brand able to authentically embrace it? Considering factors like these can make or break the success of the content. You want to receive the desired reaction from your target audience, rather than excluding or offending individuals or groups.
Rebecca Pinn, senior strategist, Wunderman Thompson
Memes have become human insights in an image, and brands should harness their power to get under customers’ skins and find out what they really think. Instead of silencing people’s opinions and forcing the narrative from the inside, embrace meme culture for what it is: when used appropriately, it’s relatable, fun and interactive.
Louise Millar, senior creative strategist, Seed
Memes are the language of youth. Like hearing your parents use slang, if it doesn’t stem from the right voice, it becomes cringeworthy and counterproductive. So it’s not for every brand, and that’s OK. If it doesn’t align with your brand’s personality and overarching comms strategy, don’t do it. If it does, look to the language source to get it right.
Tom Storey, strategist, Havas Cake
Creatives might reference a popular meme in an ad. But if, and only if, the audience who made it popular are the same as the intended audience of the ad. This can make the audience feel like they’re accessing an ‘in-joke’ but as part of something bigger, which is powerful. The spider-man pointing at spider-man reference in No Way Home is a great example of this.
Brands fall down when they think creating a meme makes them a part of meme culture – like thinking that creating a football shirt makes you part of football culture. Don’t do that.
Jo Bromilow, social media strategy director, Golin
Meme culture is not new; micro-communities with their own lexicons have always set the tone for social communication. Memes are a nod to an individual’s membership of a community that, like the popular Captain America meme, understood that reference. And alongside more exclusive real-world moments, contextless and timeless formats – such as the (for better or worse) Little Miss format – will continue to grow in popularity.
Here, where mass relatability and deep community intersect, is where brands can play, leaning into this internet-first joke-laden language to speak to their most knowing fans in the same language. But – crucially – only in places where they have an established right to play.
Dan Noller, digital creative director, McCann
It’s about bringing something to the party. I’ll stretch this analogy into three ways brands can reduce their chance of getting it wrong:
Don’t turn up late. If it’s taken two weeks to get through three levels of approval, honestly don’t bother.
Who the hell invited you? Brands have their own place in culture. Get to know yours from the internet’s perspective – this will help guide what you can get involved in and what to steer clear of.
Don’t bring the mood down. This is the big one. Be funny. There’s no point in just turning up and not bringing anything new to it – you need to be entertaining, or what’s the point?
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