One does not simply use a meme

More than harmless fun, memes are a hidden threat for corporate images and narratives


A meme is a strange thing to begin with. In the age of social media, it's easy for us to recognise one when we see it – a funny picture, usually accompanied by one or two lines of text. But how would we define a meme? Apparently, memes are much more than little pictures that float around the internet – even these internet memes are by far the most popular of all.

In the beginning

In 1976, the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins coined the terms in his seminal work The Selfish Gene. Dawkins had the idea that there had to be something in the cultural evolution of societies that is similar to genes in the process of evolution by natural selection. To make it rhyme with the term gene, Dawkins came up with the word meme, which he then defined as “tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches.” Where genes copy themselves in the process of procreation, memes jump from brain to brain by imitation. And so, for Dawkins, the path was paved: “Once the genes have provided their survival machines with brains that are capable of rapid imitation, the memes will automatically take over.”

And then, nothing happened – at least not much. Apart from academic circles and some special interest groups, nobody ever recognised the term meme to be of any significance for the society in the 21st century. But somewhere between the good old internet days of weblogs, chatrooms and discussion boards and nowadays web 2.0, the meme made a stunning return.

The spread

In a Google image search, the term "meme" doesn't get any returns prior to April 2008. From then on, however, Google alone is sprawling with memes of cats, celebrities, politicians and regular people like you and me. One of the first widely spread memes in the internet era is arguably the Barrack Obama 'Hope meme'. The meme is based on a poster created by Shepard Fairey in early 2008 and then adopted by the Democratic Party for the election campaign of presidential candidate Barrack Obama. Fairey’s most distributed version shows Obama in an iconic pose, painted in shades of red and blue. The picture is subtitled with the term “Hope”, a recurring theme in the campaign to follow, which helped Obama to win against John McCain. What is interesting isn't so much the widespread dispersion of the image – America has always been on the forefront of marketing. What is astonishing is what users did once they got hold of the picture. Departing from Fairey’s original image, internet users changed the meme into whatever came into their mind. Within weeks, what started as a poster, used by a centralised political campaign developed a life on its own on the internet. Obama’s iconic figurehead was changed, the subtitle, the coloration – everything just one step shy from total alienation from the original meme.

Alternative discourse

The crucial point is that the meme had turned into an alternative discourse itself, one that doesn't take place in traditional arenas of the public sphere, such as newspapers, TV or radio. And, probably more importantly, it began a life of its own that could not be controlled by traditional means of press and public relations. Since 2008, the Hope Meme has become a standard element in the portrayal of politicians. They serve as crystallising cores in online discourses on social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or Reddit. And here, the story becomes interesting for corporate communications as well.

Memes in crisis

Surely, most memes are just funny pictures, ie “digital objects that riff on a given visual, textual or auditory form and are then appropriated, re-coded, and slotted back into the internet infrastructures they came from”, as Laine Nooney and Laura Portwood-Stacer wrote in the Journal of Visual Culture.

Hence, most memes show cats, children and celebrities accompanied by one or two humorous lines of text. However, some of them turn out to be critical and satirical reflections of serious issue. Where the Obama Hope Meme in its endless variations reflected discourse on the Obama campaign and, later on, his presidency, memes also engaged corporations and their behaviour, especially during crises.

After the BP oil rig Deepwater Horizon exploded on 20 April 2010, it did not take long before the first BP memes began floating online. The same can be said of Toyota’s Accelerator pedal recall, Sony’s corporate hack in 2014, Volkswagen’s emissions scandal in 2015, and, just recently, United Airlines overbooking crisis.

The moment a meme springs into existence, other internet users pick up the meme and begin to alter it, thereby adapting it to their liking. Where a single video can reach an enormous viewership, memes can spread throughout the entire internet, thereby adapting to new issues and thus connecting them with the trigger issue. To stay with United Airlines: on 9 April 2017, a passenger was dragged out of a United Flight, despite having had a valid ticket. The incident soon made news due to a video of the incident going viral, posted by a fellow passenger on social media. In the memetic discourse, the episode became quickly connected with United’s earlier wrongdoings, eg United Breaks Guitars.

Connecting with the internet’s memory

By connecting upon preexisting discoursive strings, memes can provide a quickly accessible internet memory, which classical viral communication does not. With a blink of an eye, the user can connect incidents that might have been years ago and thus – potentially – activating long buried attitudes towards a company.

When Volkswagen had its emission scandal in 2015, also known as Dieselgate, a similar discourse was born. Most famous is probably Greenpeace’s immediate reaction, posting a meme that featured Darth Vader. The meme connected with an extremely successful viral clip that Volkswagen had produced for the 2011 Super Bowl.

Hidden threats

So, the question now is, what should these funny memes tell us about corporate communication and why should we care at all?

Memes are not revolutionary devices which turn the image of an organisation upside down during a crisis. They are small pieces in an ocean of online communication - but they are certainly special. Unlike the complex contents of articles, podcasts and videos, memes capture complex sets of meaning in a nutshell. Their ability to connect issues with pop cultural content guarantee high recognition; no matter whether it is Ed Stark from Game of Thrones, Fry from Futurama or Boromir from The Lord of The Rings.

The danger of a meme is not its immediate effect on a crisis situation. Memes draw their power from their sheer number, their ability to evolve, their crowd of different individual authors, their non-traceability, the memories they store online. Memes evade the standard modes of corporate communication: they cannot be targeted, neither can their invisible authors. The unidentifiable source is perhaps the biggest problem for corporate communication, since all strategies that target the author of communication automatically fail. And so, slowly but steadily, memes establish a corporate image below the threshold of organisational recognition. In small discourse communities, memes dwell and, step by step, challenge established narratives about organisations. And therein lies the biggest threat of the memeb phenomenon. With memes challenging corporate narratives, sense-making and images, companies are in danger of losing the power to publicly define who they are. Yes, traditional media always possessed that power in times of corporate crises, but the challenge of memes builds up slowly, almost invisibly, and the standard tools of corporate communications are useless - unlike with traditional media content. Like a guerrilla force, memes hide in the depths of the vast spaces of internet communications. And by the time they've already formed their counter-images and counter-narratives of an organisation, it might already be too late.