What’s in a meme?

To once again quote Shakespeare, that which we laugh at in any other form would be as funny. While the topic of memes is discussed frequently in our office, some of us struggle with the definition. You may have seen some of our favorite funny images on our Facebook and Twitter but in reality, a meme is more than just a picture with text. A good colloquial definition that we have found is “an idea, behavior, style or usage that spreads from person to person within a culture.” While Richard Dawkins first coined the word “meme” in his 1976 book, The Selfish Gene, we believe that our above definition lends itself to many ideas and behaviors, particularly in the field of marketing. One of the earliest memes that comes to mind is the “Uncle Sam – I want you” which first made its appearance in J. M. Flagg’s 1917 poster. Nowadays, as communicators have harnessed the Internet as a force to spread their messages, memes have followed suit. Old memes have gotten an update (as seen below) and technology has allowed for more memes to be generated at a rapid pace.

As professionals now have a larger audience to communicate with, their messages can be broadcast to outside cultures, broadening an organization’s sphere of influence. When taking the example of the above political meme, we would like to highlight two very interesting memes that we have come across regarding the upcoming presidential election.

The meme above is a message that has been circulating since December of 2011 when then hopeful presidential candidate Mitt Romney used the phrase “Keep America America” during several public appearances. Both the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post incorrectly reported this to be Romney’s campaign slogan, and established that this was eerily similar to the slogan once used by the Ku Klux Klan, “Keep America American.” The Republican National candidate’s official campaign slogan, which was announced in April 2011, is “Believe in America.” While both outlets provided a retraction shortly afterwards, the meme has once again risen in popularity following the Republican National Convention.

The second meme that we have seen while browsing the interwebz is an image proclaiming the message that “life jackets should be banned.” The meme was conceived following the recent statements made by Republican Senator Todd Akin regarding abortion. An online petition is currently being circulated and the image is being shared through popular community forums such as Reddit, Pinterest and Cafemom.  Although the image has spurred many conversations in the blogosphere, this is not an official message from the Democratic National Party.

As previously stated, a meme is not necessarily a picture; it can be an idea or message. Both of these examples portray the fact that memes can allow individuals to be champions for an organization’s cause. While memes can be used to generate interest, this is a double-edged sword: an independent representative may convolute your message, leading to confusion within your audience as to which ideals you, or your brand, truly stand for.

With the continual shift of PR and marketing to incorporate more online conversations, utilizing a meme as a tool could help communicators who are attempting to push out a message. The key part of the definition the idea that it spreads quickly throughout a culture, keeping the messaging interesting is important to ensure that you grab the attention of the public. The ability to create something intriguing without losing the message is the mark of a good communicator.