An Interdisciplinary Analysis of Meme Marketing
The use of viral images as a sociological construct derived from shared experiences and the marketability of those experiences in advertising has great potential. Instead of thinking of memes as something to be studied in and of themselves, systems thinking offers you the possibility of thinking about them as the results of intersecting systems. Can viral digital media be used to target groups of people of specific markets? Who is most engaged by viral digital media and what are the most effective ways to create engaging viral media? Can I focus specifically on the “Loss” format meme, it’s cultural significance, the postmodernism language games it utilizes, and the active use by marketers? Can specific forms of viral media be used to advertise to target audiences through the use of postmodern language games utilizing shared experiences among groups of people? I answer these questions and more in this interdisciplinary analysis of viral media marketing, specifically relating to the “Loss” format meme.
The popularity of the meme, whether in the form of a funny stock photo with a bold caption, a screencap of a Twitter quote and an entertaining reply, or an image of a Reddit thread that someone identifies with, cannot be denied. All these formats and more can be found readily while browsing any popular social media or sharing platform today. The question however is if specific forms of viral media be used to advertise to target audiences through the use of postmodern language games utilizing shared experiences among groups of people. With the focus of this paper specifically on the “Loss” format meme, it’s cultural significance, the postmodernism language games it utilizes, and the active use by marketers, I believe it is entirely possible for marketers to tap into the sociological constructs we have created through social media use and utilize this viral content format for marketing purposes.
Defining Memes and the History of “Loss”
The origin of the term meme can be traced to the 1979 Rickard Dawkins book “The Selfish Gene” where Dawkins contrasts “genes” that determine an organism’s characteristics and “memes” that determine the behavior of the organism. The Davison publication that cites the original Dawkins book then defines an internet meme specifically as “a piece of culture, typically a joke, which gains influence through online transmission.” The Davison publication goes on to detail the manifestation of memes (its observable, external phenomena), the behavior of memes (the action taken by an individual in service of the meme), and the ideal conveyed by memes (the ideal dictates the behavior, which in turn creates the manifestation). From this breakdown, we can conclude that, “if the manifestation is a funny image of a cat and the behavior is using software to make it, then the ideal is something like ‘cats are funny’” (Davison, 2012).
When referencing the history of the Loss meme format, it is essential for the audience to understand that the original image is from Ctrl+Alt+Del, a webcomic that introduces a storyline around the life and experiences of a central character, Ethan, who embodies the stereotypical “gamer”. The series goes on to introduce coworkers, roommates, and a love interest for Ethan, Lilah. The artist, Tim Buckley, often used the webcomic to channel things that were going on in his own life and the comic titled “Loss”, published June 2, 2008, addressed the serious topic of the main characters’ experiencing a miscarriage (Buckley, 2008). The reception of the webcomic turned heated for some through the webcomic’s dedicated forums, with fans divided on being proud of Buckley for bringing something so personal to the series versus those that felt it put an unnecessary shadow on the lighthearted storyline they had come to love (Wikipedia, 2019). Parodies and edits quickly followed and the comic turned into the basis for what is now known as the “Loss” meme (Know Your Meme, 2019). Reddit thread r/lossedits is likely the largest collection of “Loss” format memes in a single location and this collection explicitly highlights the way the postmodernist language games theory we will later discuss comes to fruition through the complex collections of material people associate with “Loss” (Reddit, 2019).
Memes and “Loss” through Art Lenses
To understand the context of memes and specifically the “Loss” meme, we first take a look at how they relate to design theory, defined as understanding of the tangible elements including form, space, proportion, color, scale, texture, structure, composition, line, shape, and volume and how to arrange them to achieve balance, rhythm, pattern, hierarchy, emphasis, and unity. Memes are typically made up of specific elements arranged in a visually appealing fashion, with equally visually appealing subject matter, that is then tailored to the intended audience in order to elicit a certain response. This application of design theory, blended with a purpose or problem to solve, results in effective design solutions in the form of memes that people then share (Galle, 2009). Typically, memes center on the images used to compose them, but often additional text is used to add an entertaining meaning that is relatable to the viewer. The text is often formatted in one of two ways, a quote thread similar to Twitter or Reddit, or the bold use of the Impact font in white with a black stroke, with text at the top and or bottom of the image (Gallagher, 2017). When you consider the emotional context of typography and the goals it achieves through creative design utilization, these design decisions in place for memes are strategic in capturing the attention of the intended audience (Aliotta, 2013).
Different meme formats aim to convey different messages. Some recent popular formats include the following. “Surprised Pikachu” is typically displayed below a quote, a contradictory response, then the screencap from the Pokémon cartoon series with the creature appearing surprised, intended to translate into the surprise surrounding the original quote. In the example provided on the appendix, the subject matter is the anti-vaccine controversy. “Change My Mind” is an often overly photoshopped version of the original image of American-Canadian podcaster Stephen Crowder seated behind a sign that reads, “Male Privilege is a myth / Change My Mind” outside of a Texas Christian university. In the example provided on the appendix, the subject matter is along a familiar theme of making fun of country music. “The Most Interesting Man in the World” is classified as an image macro of the highly successful beer advertisement that ran from 2006 to 2018 where the charismatic spokesperson states, “I don’t always drink beer, but when I do, I prefer Dos Equis.” The parodies are ironic in nature and typically follow the phrasal template, “I don’t always _, but when I do, I _.” In the example provided on the appendix, the subject matter relates to the upset over the ability of the human body to wake without an alarm early on a Saturday. A contrasting meme format that goes beyond the usual design rules utilizes the “Retrowave Text Generator” that places whatever words the user enters in an intentionally dated design, most often to convey entertaining, self-depreciating, or ironic quotes. In the example provided on the appendix, the subject matter is the often-found self-depreciating humor regarding the weight of adult responsibilities (Galloway, 2019). Any trending topic in mainstream media is likely to be parodied or interpreted ironically and published into multiple different meme formats, with the content creation possibilities almost endless.
The specific design elements of the “Loss” meme are the replication of the pattern the characters in each panel create, sometimes displayed symbolically as “| || || |_”. The first panel is represented by one horizontal line (Ethan), the second panel is represented by two unequal vertical lines (Ethan and the seated receptionist), the third panel is represented by two equal vertical lines (Ethan speaking to the doctor), and the fourth panel is represented by two perpendicular lines (Ethan entering Lilah’s hospital room). The irony of most “Loss” memes comes from the coincidental replication of these shapes prior to the publication of “Loss” and the intentional replication of these shapes after the publication of “Loss”, coupled with its application to such a wide variety of topics, all with the intention of parody and propagation of the miscarriage as a joke. Multiple Facebook groups exist for the sole purpose of tagging images that fit the given design criteria with phrases such as “Is this loss?” and “This is definitely loss” (Know Your Meme, 2019). The appendix includes just some of the “Loss” format memes that span the gamut of subject matter; photoshopped modifications to the original comic, political commentary, educational material, promotional material, words that rhyme with “Loss”, plays on the word “Loss”, arbitrary designs that have nothing to do with “Loss” other than the replication of the design or shapes, text based representations of the design format, and even memes inside other meme formats that reference “Loss” (Galloway, 2019).
Memes and “Loss” through Sociology Lenses
The first sociological element of memes we will look at focuses on group dynamics and their relation to the Symbolic Interactionist theory. In this sociological perspective, researchers analyze how groups of people interact based on shared experiences and ideals. The entire process of the meme can be considered a shared experience, from initial viewing, to sharing, and even going as far as joining in on the content creation. Each meme comes with its own set of ideals, definitions, and preconceptions, and individuals with like minds share in the experience of the meme through the lifespan of the viral content. (Lumen Learning, n.d.). When specifically targeting the “Loss” meme format, individuals can come together in the shared experience of the joke from several angles. As a reader of the original comic, I came to know it as a controversial joke surrounding miscarriage that evolved into a viral meme format that questioned the intent of any similarly patterned four-panel design. As a Reddit user, one might be tricked into seeing “Loss” without understanding the context, but from then on understand the joke and its history, perpetuating the spread of the content. As a consumer looking at an inconspicuous product advertisement, specifically the Western Digital Philippines Facebook post, the visual appeal of the symmetrical design would be appreciated and the reference to safeguarding one’s data against “loss” would make sense, but the joke might be entirely overlooked until the comments complimenting “marketing strategy” or encouraging the company to “give this person a raise” were read and the strangely large number of interactions and shares were viewed (Western Digital Phillipines, 2018).
Postmodernism “language games” are the second subset of the sociological influence of memes. These language games boil down to means of communication that is so specialized that unless you are part of a specific group, it’s totally incomprehensible. (From Language to Postmodern Language Game Theory, 2016). While preparing to write this paper, I found it difficult to explain the concept of my proposed integration plan to my classmates as well as senior level writing tutors, and I now know that it’s because of the specialized communication that memes are comprised of. The inside jokes, the self-depreciating humor, and the ironic parody of everyday subjects are concepts I am “in” on, where others fell outside this group and just didn’t understand. It is for these reasons that I have gone into so much detail on the history of the term “meme” and the growth of the “Loss” format and included an appendix referencing specific images.
The final sociological element of memes can be traced to the culturally ingrained habit of giving among humans. It is second nature to want to share and give gifts and the technology of social media allows us to share almost anything we can come up with of across great distances. Groups of people collect around these shared experiences and this gift giving, seen in the growth of the vast number of Facebook Groups available to join and connect with others with similar interests (Cohn, 2012). The human desire to give gifts is translated modernly through the sharing of memes and viral content and embodies a highly specific form of gift giving that technology has paved the way for (Pyyhtinen, 2016).
Memes and “Loss” through Marketing Lenses
Brands are speaking a new consumer language in the form of viral media marketing and memes are a key ingredient in this marketing mix. With the need to target to specific, untapped audiences growing as fast as the gap between marketers and their consumers, the creative use of viral content through social media channels becomes more important by the day. Consumers spend a growing amount of time on their smartphones and tablets and the need for brands to be seen in a saturated market is very real (McCrae, 2017). When you consider the formula to calculate return on investment in a marketing campaign, any free advertising you get as a result of social media sharing will only further the reach of the marketing dollar and spread your message even further (Beattie, 2019). If the content is tailored specifically to be shared, such as a popular meme format, its ahead of the race when compared to more dated promotion styles that a brand might attempt. An expert in their field, Mashable has even patented a formula to create viral media; marketers can replicate a similar process for their own brands to increase their visibility among competitors and even achieve viral status themselves (United States Patent No. US20170324822A1, 2013).
A More Comprehensive Understanding
With focus specifically on the “Loss” format meme, it’s cultural significance, the postmodernism language games it utilizes, and the active use by marketers, it is clear that the disciplines of sociology, marketing, and graphic design come together to form a new means of “meme marketing” that is a very viable solution to spread content to a specific audience. The huge success of the Western Digital post, published just before the tenth anniversary of the “Loss” comic, can be cited as successfully achieving this goal. With over 12,000 post engagements, 600 comments, 300 shares, and who knows how many physical post views, the brains behind this campaign knew the language game they were playing and took advantage of their connection to the audience that understood the joke (Western Digital Phillipines, 2018). A 2017 Forbes article on meme marketing outlines five rules to follow for successful use of this growing advertising channel. The first rule is to speak the language of memes, as the members of these sociologically constructed groups will likely spot inauthenticity if a brand tries too hard to be cool. The second rule is to not take yourself too seriously. “Memes work because they are silly and ridiculous. Show your brand’s human side by proving you aren’t afraid to have fun.” The third rule is to be comfortable knowing not everyone will understand, as these specialized language games are all about targeting those who are in on them. The fourth rule is to increase shareability as much as you can, as the continued propagation of your content increases your return on investment and almost turns into free advertising if your content goes viral. The final rule of meme marketing is to ensure timeliness, as the culture of memes can change rapidly as new jokes are made, groups follow new trends, and the postmodernist language games advance (McCrae, 2017).
Specific forms of viral media can be and have been used to advertise to target audiences through the use of postmodern language games utilizing shared experiences among groups of people. The popularity of multiple meme formats crossing the boundaries into legitimate marketing campaigns are abundant and still growing. Last week, I came across a company’s Instagram and was pleased to find nearly their entire feed full of Twitter screencaps and memes. While scrolling on Facebook just today, I saw an advertisement for a pharmaceutical company using the currently popular “Woman Yelling at a Cat” meme format (Galloway, 2019). The marketing strategies necessary to tap into the youthful market that demands the most recent content are clearly pointing in the direction of the use of memes and viral media. The element of postmodernist language games makes the use of these images even more entertaining because the viral content only means something to a set audience that identifies with the quote, image, or thread being referenced. To someone outside the group that understands the language game, this media makes no sense and will quickly be scrolled past and not shared, while someone familiar with the subject matter will almost without hesitation share and spread the viral content. As the content gains momentum and is seen more often, the individuals outside the joke will begin to look into the meaning and become part of the group, spreading the sharing of the content even further. The spread of this specific topic into meme territory is replicated on nearly every subject in mainstream media today and the marketability of this viral content cannot be denied. While I do not see mainstream media outlets frequently utilizing the often-controversial content, the continuous sharing between certain groups of people will make these images, quotes, and threads something we will look back on with nostalgia and insight into how the interactions of these postmodern social groups worked and interacted in the early 2000’s.
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