Memes, content which spreads rapidly via the internet, are a digital phenomena that brands are increasingly hungry to sink their teeth into. Original ones are a perfect storm of time, place and good fortune (such as the double rainbow), which have amassed millions of views each. Brands are continually looking to create DIY memes in an attempt have their chance to ‘break the internet’. These fake memes are the digital generation’s answer to the traditional PR stunt, ranging from the sublime (a polar bear wandering around London) to the ridiculous (a twerking girl on fire).
Fake memes can pop up anywhere, but often gain the most traction on social media platforms, with users keen to be the first to share breaking news or sensational stories. The meme generally start off with what could be a tip off email to a small blogger, which then gets picked up by the wider online publications such as Forbes, Gawker or Buzzfeed. According to media manipulator, Ryan Holiday, such sites are not stringent enough with their source checking, either eager to cut through the noise or simply desperate to refresh content which has such a short shelf life.
The stunts can also take the form of hacking the usual usage of social media, i.e. the medium becomes the message. For example, a LinkedIn campaign for new TV series ‘Stalker’ set up a fake profile for a hooded “stalker”, who then viewed the profile of over 12,000 people. Upon receiving the notification, 63% of people looked back at the profile, which was populated with details about the upcoming TV show. Taco Bell similarly chose to hack their social media sites – deliberately crashing their Twitter and Facebook – over two days to direct people to use their new app after its launch.
Brands know the weight that social currency carries, and how people like to share posts that reflect well on them as a person. Moreover, the kudos gained from sharing an insightful or hilarious post is only heightened further when you are the first to do so. Being in the know, and the source of new information within your network is a powerful position to be in.
Fake memes can also act as a demonstration of the services a person or brand provide. This was certainly the case for PR guru Matthew Carpenter, the mastermind behind “Ship Your Enemies Glitter” which sold for $85,000 and gave him a huge influx of professional opportunities. Even more explicitly promoting their own industry was a tutorial agency which fooled the Weather Channel into believing there had been a meteor shower to publicise their course in After Effects.
Whether a meme is started by the company or more organically, a brand can benefit from the knock on effects profoundly. As publications such as the Washington Post now seek to call out the fakes on a weekly basis, brands have to be extra cunning for it to slip under the radar. So the question to ask about all this is, does it matter? Probably not, but it’s always better to be in on the joke rather than the butt of it.