Blog entry by Mike Florette, speaker, organizational consultant, standup comedian, and author of ”Oväder i Hjärnan – klimathot på jobbet” (roughly translated to ”A storm in the brain – climate change at work).
”Because you’re worth it.” What do you think of when you hear that? Quite a few of you will probably think of hair, makeup, and beauty products related to a specific brand. Similarly, mouths start watering at the sound of the ice cream truck’s familiar jingle and some will immediately recognize Beethoven’s fifth, with it’s signature da-da-da-dum! But why is that?
The theory of Memetics calls it memes, a term first coined by Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book “The Selfish Gene”. The book itself is about evolution and the title refers to how a gene, a unit of heredity in organisms, creates as many copies of itself as possible. However, Dawkins asserted that there is a corresponding unit or element to genes when it comes to cultural evolution, calling it a meme. The word itself is quite similar to “gene” and is derived from the Greek “mimeme”, meaning “that which is imitated”.
Memes are integral to our cultural development, as genes are to our biological evolution. Our genes are passed on through sexual reproduction, while memes are spread through plagiarism, mimicry, copying, imitation, practices, institutions, and habits among other things.
This is something that advertising, PR, and the media have already seized upon. Memes can be melodies, fashion styles, gossip, slogans, mottos, catchphrases, or beliefs. Cognitive scientist Dan Dennett says: “A meme is an information packet with attitude.”
If you work with PR, media, or advertising, you should know how memes work. It’ll save money, time, and energy.
Some of you may remember the Tamagotchi craze. This electronic pet was incredibly popular among kids in the 90s. But the Tamagotchi wasn’t marketed using advertising. They used memes aimed at children: “you must have a Tamagotchi”, “a Tamagotchi will make you happy”, and “everyone else has a Tamagotchi”.
“Everyone else has…” is an extremely powerful meme, because people, especially children, are always striving for acceptance and belonging. Just the thought of being the only kid without a Tamagotchi can instill anguish and fear. This ensures that the desire to get a Tamagotchi becomes very strong.
Now, with the help of the modern media landscape, a meme can spread much faster and much farther. When enough people have received a meme, things start changing. The US has a black president. Just a few decades ago this seemed impossible, but because enough people accepted the meme “The President of the USA can be black”, it became reality.
In today’s society, social media has become a vital part of the spreading of memes. We’ve seen revolutions in North Africa because of memes spread through Facebook and Twitter. That meme? “We don’t have to accept our current situation.”
Memes in themselves are neither bad nor good for us. It’s the effects they have that are interesting. If I write a status update complaining about being the trains being delayed again because of the cold (for example: “Typical Swedish trains. Now I’m stuck yet again!”), I would have created a meme that adds to a negative image of Swedish trains.
One thing to keep in mind: when we create and release a meme, we essentially relinquished control over it and its spread.
Memes shed a whole new light on that old cliché, all publicity is good publicity, when you take into consideration what spreading memes can do to a person’s reputation. Swedish politician Sven-Otto Littorin found himself at the sharp end of some bad publicity when memes about an alleged prostitution scandal spread like lightning, regardless if they were true or not.
Memes that spread fastest are those that mention sex, danger, or food. These topics tap into our survival instincts and capture our attention immediately. Just look at the first page headline of any tabloid on any day of the week. There is at least one of these aspects mentioned at any time, often all three: “Sexy food is dangerous” or “Dangerous food is sexy”, etc.
YouTube deserves a special mention as a meme-spreader, as it exists on a level of its own. Phrases and expressions spread like wildfire through this digital TV channel. There’s even a word for clips of this nature: viral videos.
There have been quite a few examples of viral videos over the years (like the recent Volkswagen commercial above). Have you heard of Star Wars Kid, Charlie bit my finger, Rickrolling, Chocolate Rain, Dancing Matt, or Dramatic Chipmunk? These videos, including the catchphrases or imagery, have even beem parodied by “traditional” media, like in a advertisement for a cabel television company in Sweden. This is a clear example of how memes spread and have lives of their own, beyond the originator’s control.
Despite what you may think, it is actually hard to imagine how social media will spread or affect memes. Memes don’t spread because they are good or bad, they spread because they can. The point is that we have to be careful what kind of memes we spread. It’s bad enough to spread negative memes about other people at the office, for example. But to do it on Facebook or Twitter… it can get out of control quite quickly.
The best thing to do is to spread memes that affect our lives positively, that guide is the right direction, and that we all can benefit from. We can’t take today’s media landscape lightly, because what seems like a harmless rumor can grow into a Frankenstein’s monster that we cannot contain.
So, spread positive memes. Because you’re worth it.