By Paul Murray
Among all the top ten lists and predictions that greeted the new year, you might have missed a recap of some of 2010’s top memes. There are two, in particular, to which I’d like to draw your attention.
First is Sad Keanu, which began when some aspiring paparazzi snapped a candid shot of the actor Keanu Reeves sitting on a park bench, eating a sandwich, looking mildly melancholic.
The photo was almost immediately captioned and Photoshop-manipulated into new (often very funny) iterations, and became so popular that June 15th is now unofficially “Cheer Up Keanu Day.”
The second is “Vengeance Dad.” It’s a photograph that originally surfaced on awkwardfamilyphotos.com depicting a nuclear family in a clichéd montage where the face of the father is oddly disconnected from his family, looming large and creepy. Notable user-generated captions of this photo meme include: “They wanted to see Disneyland… I showed them hell.” and “what’s the street value of 3 pairs of kidneys?”
The third meme I’d like to cite is even stranger, and far more recent, dating from early January of this year. It was begun by a cartoonist on reddit.com and features a captcha where the words “Inglip summoned” are featured. In a panel following the captcha appears a roughly drawn demonic face with the caption “Inglip has been summoned… it has begun.” This comic has launched an entire cult, complete with its own language. The central motif revolves around acolytes following Inglip, and following his cryptic and nonsensical commands, as expressed through more captchas.
Now, as advertisers and brand marketers, we’ve always been in pursuit of memes. In the dark ages, we’d call them jingles. Then perhaps catchphrases or taglines. And now there’s an entire marketing discipline dedicated to viral propagation. There’s nothing we’d like more than to have a snazzy, funny line associated with one of our clients’ brand promises that catches on like wildfire, spreads like a rhinovirus, and ends up covered on CNN. But you have to ask yourself, why doesn’t this happen more often, if at all?
I think part of the answer can be extracted from the three memes I’ve cited. For one thing, they all begin with a seed of complete authenticity, a kind of innocence. Their catalysts are not engineered, they simply appear, in much the same way that naked guy got caught in a car trunk photographed by the Google street view team last year. They are then repurposed by users, who adopt simple formulas of manipulation to retell a kind of ironic joke. The goal of those users isn’t to spread the meme, per se; it’s to self-express through humor. This is the exact same behavior that gave rise to the lolcats.
But the last thing in the world any brand wants is to lose control of its messaging, or worse yet, to open it up to the potential mockery of the masses. So the very engine that’s at work in meme propagation is antithetical to brands. Even the most rebellious brands meticulously craft their benefits, and these remain sacrosanct. The only way a brand could attach itself to a meme would be purely accidental, being caught with its pants down, as it were.
Brands, in the end, are still largely polar opposites to the sort of energy that Clay Shirky speaks of in the concept of cognitive surplus. Even Keanu Reeves (a personal brand that should probably be grateful for any extra public attention) was at first unaware of the meme centered around him. The true irony, though, is the fact that memes which achieve quantum mass become a sort of brand unto themselves.