Eschewing the political and economic ramifications a Trump presidency will have on the Anglosphere, the successful culmination of the Republican candidate’s campaign sends a clear message to would-be influencers around the world: Donald Trump didn’t win today, memes won.
While those claiming the President-elect was “memed into office” may be speaking hyperbolically, it may prove difficult for many PR professionals, particularly those representing non-profits and other clients attached to social movements, to ignore the grass-roots arm of his campaign that blasted social media and online forums with their candidate’s message; the media certainly hasn’t.
Pepe the Frog is the example that leaps to mind. The anthropomorphic character, originating from an innocuous indie comic focused on four twenty-something slackers, made headlines in late September when he was listed as a hate symbol by the Anti-defamation League, relegating Pepe to the same status as the swastika and burning cross. The character had been circulating on forums and image boards since the late aughts, becoming a popular sight online once users began manipulating the character’s image to reflect different emotions and areas of popular culture. While the history of the image is quite interesting as a pop-culture/mass contribution movement, the trail of pop culture references eventually led to the American presidential campaign.
Pepe the Frog became inseparably linked to the Trump campaign as Trump’s younger and more tech-savvy supporters – collectively referred to as the alt-right – grafted their candidates image and messages, often with overt nationalist symbols, on to the meme. During the latter months of the campaign and up until today, this group has achieved a dominant presence on social media and the internet at large.
The role of memes and other user-generated content shouldn’t be under or overstated. Political elections of this size attract a wide range of influencing factors, which become staggering when multiplied by the 128 million voters fighting their own internal battles. The relevance of this one factor is notable for businesses for two major reasons: this sort of content is cheap, if not free, and it takes the idea of short and easily-digestible content to its extremes, often consisting of a single sentence grafted on to a picture.
Nearly every company dreams of a loyal and enthusiastic fan base to do its marketing for it. It’s the same reason why every local band, even those signed to a label with a marketing budget, chases after the idea of having a street team. To have something genuine, honest and free of cost.
Companies who have attempted to artificially harness such a movement have been dismissed as notoriously unsuccessful. The most recent example of this was the National Environment Research Council’s decision to open up voting rights for a new research vessel’s name to the public, who eventually settled on the name Boaty McBoatface. A more notorious example was when PepsiCo did the same for a new flavour of Mountain Dew, the most popular name being “Hitler did nothing wrong.” In the end, neither of these names were used.
News publications uniformly mocked these campaigns, Time Magazine referring to the Mountain Dew campaign as having gone “horribly wrong.” The outcome they received was arguably the best they could hope for, however – Mountain Dew appeared in Time Magazine and several other publications, after all, for free, while the RRS Boaty McBoatface/Sir David Attenborough is the only NERC research vessel many of us could name. A fairly large reward for simply playing the fool, whether they intended to do so or not.
Memes and other user-generated content can be used as an effective marketing tactic, though contrary to common belief, they aren’t necessarily free. Whether you’re campaigning for a private company, a government organisation or a public figure, you’ll likely walk away looking like a fool. Still, it’s a small price to pay.