Are You a Good Meme or A Bad Meme (and Does it Matter)?

When a juicy Internet meme explodes, it’s that topic you end up seeing everywhere – social media feeds, news clips, tweets by the thousands. Most marketers love it when a meme favorable to their brand goes viral, but also claim horror when something negative takes off.

For instance, amid a frenzy of promotion for the season opener of “Mad Men” over the last few weeks, a meme involving Jon Hamm’s private parts went viral. Quoting an unnamed source from within the “Mad Men” camp, one of the gossip sites claimed the costume folks had to ask Hamm, who likes to go commando, to wear appropriate foundation garments under his form-fitting suits. 

There are already entire Tumblr accounts dedicated to crotch shots of the leading man, so this latest meme – which the show pretends to be horrified by, and over which Hamm himself feigns outrage – swelled, ahem, instantly. Sensing an opportunity, Jockey got in on the act and offered Hamm a lifetime supply of briefs, scoring headlines and extending the meme for a few more days.

On the flip side, consider what happened to the LGBT lobbying group, Human Right Campaign, last week. Its logo, a golden equal sign on a field of deep blue, designed by Stone/Yamashita nearly twenty years ago, went viral on Facebook, but in a pink-on-bright-red version. What started with HRC donors expressing their hope for positive outcomes as the Supreme Court began deliberations about two landmark gay rights cases turned into a tidal wave of red-and-pink equal signs all over Facebook. As one person after another changed their profile picture to the equal sign, it became clear just how much America was ready to embrace marriage equality for lesbians and gay men. HRC declared that it is thrilled.

But what about memes that get rolling over which a brand has no control? Last year the Susan G. Komen for the Cure foundation, which operates the once-popular breast cancer walks, got into trouble over the ending of its financial support to Planned Parenthood. The controversial move spread like wildfire across social networks and was amplified by media reports. Women who’ve supported the organization by the millions expressed outrage. The result? A top executive resigned, Komen reversed its decision, and it hired an expensive PR firm to do damage control. The organization is still recovering from the debacle.

Memes giveth and they taketh away. Whether or not “Mad Men” sees a bigger audience for its season opener, or HRC sees an uptick in support, or Jockey sells more briefs remains to be seen, but, hey, there’s no such thing as bad publicity, right?  Well, as the Komen folks found out (and as Hamm claims to feel), not always.

So why do marketing engines so assiduously cultivate meme campaigns? After all, wildfires are called wild for a reason – they’re out of control. They take weeks to contain. And they almost always inflict terrible damage.

The answer lies in the numbers. As more and more mechanisms are built to provide meme-tracking data on social media campaigns, marketers are able to provide more and more dazzling charts and graphs on reach and impact. Social media memes are a high impact, low cost way to show audience engagement. When that engagement is good, it’s great. When that engagement is faux-bad (in the case of Hamm’s junk), it’s also great. While it’s not always possible to demonstrate that audience engagement translates into ratings, or sales, or donations, engagement is a good thing in and of itself, right?

In truth, it’s rare that these sorts of campaigns result in anything—most memes never catch fire. Still, they’re worth a try. Who knows what will take off? Just hope that nothing actually bad happens. As Komen learned the hard way, there may be no way to recover from that.

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