How Advertisers Can Use The Power Of Internet Memes To Amplify Their Brand

18.09.2012 by David Waterhouse

After reading Stephan Naumann's excellent blog on memes in advertising, Memetic Advertisement, we were inspired to write this article about how marketers can use internet memes to amplify their brand across the social web. It includes examples of brands who have done it well (and some who have not), plus some advice on how advertisers can navigate the sea of memes. 

Creating social video content that will be shared across the web is far from easy.

For every successful campaign such as TNT’s Dramatic Square, Old Spice Guy and Volkswagen’s The Force, there are many more that miss the mark.

So it is not surprising that brands are turning to internet memes to help drive sales and boost brand awareness. But navigating the sea of memes is not easy. Brands who have got it right have benefitted from a huge uplift in brand metrics and earned media. However, some campaigns have backfired, incurring the wrath of the internet. 

But what exactly is a meme? Well, the term was first coined by Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene. It defined a meme as “tunes, ideas, or catch-phrases” that spread like wildfire, “leaping from brain to brain”, propagating themselves and evolving on the way.

Fast forward to 2012 and, thanks to the power of the social web, which makes it simpler and faster than ever before to spread contagious content, memes have assumed a greater significance in our daily lives.

They range from cute kitties accompanied by daft text (#lolcats) to the rebirth of 80s pop sensation Rick Astley (#rickrolling).

Advertisers have been keen to cash in their success, but with decidedly mixed results.

Here are some examples of brands which have used memes well.


Meme 1: The Dancing Baby

Evian’s Roller Babies – July 2009

Dancing Baby, or “Baby Cha-Cha’, is widely regarded as one of the earliest examples of an internet meme.

The video, which featured a 3D-rendered baby dancing to the intro of Hooked on a Feeling by the Swedish rock band Blue Swede, became global sensation via email chains in 1996 (below).

Thirteen years later and Evian and creative agency BETC Euro RSCG took it one step further with their record-breaking ad Roller Babies ad. With over 76 million views and 2.2 million shares, it remains one of the most successful web ad campaigns ever run.


Danceport Studios’ Two-Year-Old Dancing The Jive
In 2012, Kristina and Peter Stokkebroe, who run a dance studio in Denmark, showed how a small company with no budget can make a big impression on the web when they filmed their two-year-old son William dancing the jive. 
Aided by the youngster’s undoubted talent, the clip which was preceded by a plug for their studio, along with the tagline, 'You are never too young to start', went viral. With over 14.4 million views and almost 1.9 million shares, it is currently the 13th most shared ad of all time.
Meme 2: #Lolcats

Cats have long held the power of the Internets within their fishy little paws. Spend any amount of time on the web and you are bound to run into one sooner or later. Cats wearing hats, cats falling off furniture...cats doing nothing particularly interesting at all – web users just can’t get enough of them.

So it is no surprise that advertisers have tried on numerous occasions to harness their pulling power. One creative agency even had the cheek to parody it.

But which campaigns have been the most successful?

Cravendale – Cats With Thumbs, 2011

Wieden+Kennedy’s fantastic Cats With Thumbs commercial for UK dairy brand was a web sensation when it was launched in February 2011.

But did you know that only seven days before it was launched there a video of a cat apparently giving the thumbs up which went viral, spawning all kinds of parodies?

 Coincidence? We will let you be the judge.

Other notable example of brands using the #lolcats meme to great effect are WalmartIkea and Bouygues Telecom. To see the full cat ads chart, click here.

Meme 3: Chuck Norris Facts

Did you know that when Chuck Norris plays Russian Roulette he plays it with a fully loaded revolver... and wins? And that there is no chin behind Chuck Norris' beard, only another fist?

These ‘facts’ and many more about the Missing In Action actor have long been doing the rounds on the internet. But did you know that it first started as Vin Diesel facts back in 2005? It spread across forums from an original post on Something Awful, but was soon changed to Norris.

Not that anyone has the guts to mention it to Norris himself. After all, this is a guy who can bench press gravity.

World Of Warcraft – Chuck Norris, Hunter - 2011

Of course, brands have been quick to try to utilise Norris’s cult celebrity status on the web, but the best example is World of Warcraft’s fantastic Hunter ad, which reams off another load of Chuck Norris ‘facts’.

Even according to the video’s description, “Chuck Norris didn't break a sweat filming the newest World of Warcraft television spot. Instead, he made the director cry and then cooled himself with the tears”.

Whatever he did, it certainly did the trick. The ad has muscled its way to over half a million shares.

Meme 4: Call Me Maybe


Carly Rae Jepson’s hit song is not only one of the annoyingly catchiest tunes of 2012, it is also an internet phenomenon, thanks to a countless string of pretenders and parodies.

Whether it is cheerleaders, singing politicians or even some remarkably talented Corgis, it seems everyone wants to do their own of the Canadian singer’s smash hit.

However, the most successful parodies have come from brands, with Abercrombie & Fitch topping the bill.

Abercrombie & Fitch, Call Me Maybe, June 2012

Yep, the video managed the impossible – it made the web’s hottest song even hotter, thanks to a little help from some perfectly-chiselled A&F abs.

Filmed on camera phones and spliced together to look like one music video, the clip features male models from A&F's flagship stores miming to the popular track.

Sure, their lip-syncing is out of time and their dancing a touch awkward, but that has not stopped it from becoming one of the most successful ads of the 2012.

But A&F is not the only company to benefit from such a blatant meme hijack. The Sesame Street Workshop also did its own version of the popular track, starring the Cookie Monster.

Called Share It Maybe, it has certainly been a monster hit, attracting over 10 million views and 789,000 shares since its launch in July 2012.

To see more ads inspired by internet memes, click here.

Brands Beware!!

However, brands need to beware - meme-hijacking can backfire and appear inauthentic, especially when brands fail to evolve the meme in an interesting way.

Microsoft’s use of the Double Rainbow dude in 2010 attracted widespread criticism from the Internets, as the ad was perceived by some to be overly corporate, opportunistic and not in the spirit of the original video.

Create Your Own Meme

The Holy Grail for marketers is to develop a campaign concept that itself attains meme status, spawning its own spoofs, mash-ups and copycats.

Here are some of the most notable examples:

VW - The Force, Jan 2011

VW’s record-shattering Super Bowl ad, The Force, is the most shared ad of all time. Borrowing heavily from existing internet memes such as Darth Vader and the miniaturisation meme, brilliant used in's Little Gordon , it has also spawned a number of pretenders to the throne itself.

It was copied almost shot by shot to promote the film Thor, while Greenpeace used it to turn the tables on VW. Both videos attracted a lot of shares in their own right.


Old Spice – The Man Your Man Could Smell Like, Feb 2010

Old Spice’s ad, just before the 2010 Super Bowl, was a game-changing moment for social video.

Through the power of the social web, it transformed a tired brand that even your dad would be ashamed to get in his Christmas stocking to one at the top of every teen’s Santa list.

The ad spawned almost as many parodies as it did shares, but few have managed to wear the famous white towel with pride.

Other brands have also got in on the act, the most successful being Dreamworks’ Puss In BootsThe Sun and The Sesame Street Workshop.


AT&T Wireless – Responsibilities, Nov 2011

One word. That is all it took for Nate Dern, an actor in AT&T’s Responsibilities ad, to become an internet sensation. ‘Huh?’ was his only line in the entire commercial, in response to his boss, but that was enough for the actor and the video to achieve overnight celebrity status after he posted a link to the video on Reddit. The ‘Huh? Guy’ meme was born. 


Pick The Right Meme

If you want to use a meme, just make sure you choose one you're comfortable with. One that feels true to the brand, and make it your own. 

The Som Sabadell flashmob (below), released earlier this year, is a great example of this.

The flashmob is inoffensive as memes go and the Spanish bank created a classical concert in the square - the sedate end of the flash mob for a bank that wants to appear established, safe and here to stay but at the same time in touch with its customers.

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