Viral memes go cha-ching

The genius of viral memes in advertising

Picture courtesy of Google Images via Creative Commons

Picture courtesy of Google Images via Creative Commons

Emma Kelly

In an age where media is everywhere, all exposure is good exposure. One of the most lucrative forms of digital engagement is social media. Though the boom in direct advertising on popular social media platforms has been well established as an effective sales tactic, the underlying question of indirect advertising’s success still remains unsettled. For many brands, their products or services have been featured in many an internet trend and, fortunately for them, their products have been inadvertently showcased to wide audiences free of cost.

Nowadays the average person spends, “half their life looking at screens,” says the New York Times. They report that,  “Assuming the average American gets eight hours of beauty rest a night, that means they spend six hours and 43 minutes a day looking at a screen, or 7,956 days of their life.” This average screen time is what drives brands to repeatedly invest in online advertising. Whether through a sponsored Instagram post, a Facebook link to a website, or a corporate Twitter account, brands are desperate to advertise in online social settings. 

However, when a product is swept into the fire of a meme trend, brands are in uncharted territory. One of the most notable instances of product memes was the Tide Pod trend of 2018. The trend was centered around the consumption of P&G’s dishwashing product, the Tide Pod. Tide Pods themselves are toxic and can be poisonous when eaten, thus making them the perfect center to the ironic and self-deprecating comedic climate of the Gen Z who dominate social media platforms in usership totals. 

P&G’s product was broadcasted over every social media platform in every capacity. The brand exposure was, of course, a positive, yet the case if the Tide Pod memes lead to an unprecedented public response, mainly from parents of Gen Z children. P&G had originally decided to stay out of the issue completely, allowing the memes to cause whatever effects they may, free of corporate interference. Then the question of P&G’s responsibility to discourage eating Tide Pods surfaced. In response to the idea that P&G was responsible for the dangerous nature of the Tide Pod trend Drexel University Professor Robert Field explainsFrom a legal point of view, social media platforms are more at risk than companies like P&G because their business goal is “to get eyeballs, to get views.” Field believes that the true risk on these unconventional brand advertisements falls on social media platforms themselves, in terms of being at risk for regulation or government intervention on behalf of public health and safety.

Although most of the company’s representatives stated that they were disheartened and believed the memes to be a bad thing, Procter & Gamble’s (P&G) revenue reports say otherwise. The meme trend in question was most prevalent in the company’s late 2018 fiscal year. Reportedly, 2018 had the largest annual growth revenue in the 2016-2019 period at, “$66.832B, a 2.73% increase from 2017.” Barring minor corporate changes throughout the 2018 year, one of the largest differences the brand saw that year was the rise of the Tide Pod memes. It is uncertain if the internet focus on one of their products leads directly to this monetary rise, yet it is a promising statistic for other social media “frenzied” brands and their products.

Every so often, a brand is even able to create an advertisement that is so effective its tagline goes beyond its intended purpose. Buick hit the nail on the head with their iconic “That is not a Buick!”, commercials. Buick, aware of their reputation in the automotive industry, started their signature “That’s not a Buick!” tagline, ironically poking fun at their own mundane reputation.

In a Reddit post titled, Buick’s new “mistaken Identity” ad is bad for the company, a user explains his or her belief that Buick’s ironic advertising is a mistake. However another user by the name, NefariusStrudel explains, “I think they are trying to attack the perception of Buick; that all they make is full size 4 door sedans for people over 60. That they are boring cars with little to attract a younger audience. Not saying it is a great approach. I think all GM ads are dumb.” As it turns out, the ironic approach of their ads aligns perfectly with the ironic nature of teenagers’ modern humor.

Memes including all things cars have been riddled with captions and comments reading “That’s not a Buick!”. Even a number of Tik Toks have gone viral featuring the music from the aforementioned commercials while teenagers point at Buick vehicles in all places exclaiming “ That’s not a Buick!”. 

The center of the catchphrase is the unattractive nature of Buicks’ practicality to young people, yet by creating the phrase, their brand has made their product a household name among teenagers. And as the saying goes, all publicity is good publicity. As Junior Ashley Sinnot puts it, “Is there really such a thing as negative attention nowadays, especially for advertising through memes which are essentially jokes? What bad message could be pulled from them?”. From a young person’s point of view, anything in the format of a meme is going to elicit a positive response. They are, after all, the lifeline of Gen Z society culture who are the spenders of today, and more importantly, tomorrow.