I would have never thought the day would come that I could put “makes dank memes” on my resume—but based on what I’ve seen this primary season, that might be a profitable skill someday. Memes have become a powerful tool in this election cycle, and as the internet and social media continue to grow, these images will grow alongside them. This commentary isn’t new though—memes go far beyond cats and the Impact typeface, and they’ve been around for a lot longer than the web has.
Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins coined the term “meme” in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene, defining it as anything in our culture that duplicates itself, from ideas to actions. Memes stem primarily from a human’s ability to replicate complex concepts like musical melodies or fashion trends. Essentially, it’s a notion that spreads through society like a gene. This concept and the resulting theories concerning the transmission of cultural information known as memetics form the basis of the type used in political communication today: internet memes.
Corporate America has already noticed the efficacy of memes, and has made efforts to capitalize on these unique communication opportunities. Their efforts demonstrate that many companies need expert “memers,” or at least marketers with some understanding of internet culture. Very few business-born memes have successfully proliferated. When Beyonce single-handedly caused a 33 percent spike in sales at Red Lobster with her highly memetic video for “Formation,” she gave them a chance to connect with millions of customers in a meaningful and modern way. Instead, they took eight hours—years in internet time—to craft a single tweet about their new dish, “Cheddar Bey Biscuits.” The restaurant would have been better off if they had simply retweeted fan-created “Formation” memes. Instead, they used a weak pun and a picture of cheesy biscuits.
The corporate memes that prove potent usually only go viral due to how unaware and just plain bad they are.During Bill Cosby’s last few days of attempted public ignorance of the rape allegations against him, he tweeted: “Go ahead: meme me!” and included a link to a generator. Why Cosby’s publicist thought that this would be popular is beyond me, but it did end up going viral in the absolute worst way. The generator was overwhelmingly used to create memes about the allegations, further propagating the intense societal hatred of Cosby. This eventually led to his withdrawal from the public eye. If these images can be powerful enough to injure someone like Bill Cosby, it makes sense that they can wield influence within U.S. politics as well.
Politicians discovering memes is probably one of the best things that could have happened to them. They’ve been searching for a way to connect with people who aren’t interested in government, and memes—in tandem with social media—are an incredibly efficient way to do that. They have the potential to inspire interest in politics, a la The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, by using politically conscious humor that’s accessible by anyone and everyone. Will memes foster a deeper understanding of the issues they discuss? Unlikely. But not everyone needs to be a policy wonk. Most people need to know just enough to be informed voters, and memes will create more of those through their simplicity, replicability, and popularity.
The 2008 Barack Obama campaign is known for being the first to effectively connect with voters on social media. Obama has capitalized on his web presence by inserting himself into various memetic mediums that a president has never done before, such as his Ask Me Anything forum on Reddit and his comedic performance on Zach Galifianakis’ web series Between Two Ferns. And as ridiculous as these things seem, they’ve made him one of the most personable and relatable presidents to millennials.
The 2016 campaign is far and away the most meme-able election in U.S. history. Donald Trump is a candidate that has relied on Twitter, a platform friendly to this viral photo content, for a huge portion of his campaign’s communications. His biography on the platform is two memetic hashtags: #Trump2016, and the immensely popular #MakeAmericaGreatAgain.
Trump uses the media coverage garnered by his memes (his insults, his personal history, the size of his hands) to control the national conversation about the election. The main reason he is the frontrunner in this race is because both his supporters and his opponents are constantly spreading his ideas. Memes may not be the only reason Trump has been successful, but their influence on this primary season is undeniable.
As this kind of communication becomes more important, employers will start to recognize the need for this new-age skill, similarly to how everyone hired a dedicated social media person around 2008. It will soon be possible to earn a living off of making memes, and I intend to be the first in line for the job.