Internet memes are popular enough by now to be used for advertising. As part of my PhD project, I observed that companies like Gucci, Lidl, Sixt and others create and post memes on social media. For such companies, using memes is a commercial practice meant to reenforce their brand identity.
However, practicing memeing is not without risk. If advertisers do not know about the customs of meme culture, they are most likely to use memes in a wrong way and “inevitably come across as posers” (Douglas 2014, p. 336). After all, memes are not just funny pictures on the internet everybody can make use of, or even understand. Most often, they originate from subcultures such as on 4chan and Reddit, where memeing is only tacitly defined, which makes it hard for newcomers to understand the practice.
On platforms like these, memes function as cultural capital, which depends on literacy to be achieved and exchanged (Nissenbaum and Shifman 2017). Gatekeepers and watch dogs of meme culture rather aggressively try to protect their capital from outsiders, who appropriate memes for their own purpose. Advertisers especially are under the constant suspicion of exploiting memes just for profit, i.e. transforming the cultural capital of memeing into the economic capital of marketing.
My PhD project is based on this clash of memeing and marketing. There is already (some) research on meme marketing (Bury 2016; Csordás et al. 2017), but the conflict with memeing is still highly underexplored. It stands to reason that the practice of memeing, i.e. creating and circulating internet memes on a non- or even anti-commercial basis, disagrees with meme marketing, i.e. appropriating memes for advertising. In my dissertation, I want to address the question of how meme marketing praxeologically compares to, and differs from memeing.
To answer this research question, I adopt the method that Jens Ruchatz and I are currently developing over the course of the research project Pictorial Picture Critique in Social Media. This method, which we call picture practice analysis, is designed to reconstruct practices from pictures themselves. We argue that the practices used to create and circulate pictures are actually materialized inside the pictures.
Image analysis can help to reconstruct these picture practices without interviewing or observing users directly, which can be most challenging in the context of meme culture, because there is always a high chance that users are either anonymous or trolling, i.e. intentionally ironizing their practices to obscure them from outsiders and so-called ‘normies.’
Therefore, we challenge the idea that a “non-representational approach to media studies” (Larsen 2008, p. 146) should be the exclusive method to research picture practices. Instead, we bring together two seemingly different theoretical traditions: praxeology and ethnography on the one hand, picture theory and German media philosophy on the other hand. In this way, we aim to establish a context-sensitive method for analyzing pictures and practices in their digital environments.
From the perspective of media-philosophical picture theory, internet memes can be conceptualized as metapictures because they reflect on their own mediality as digital images. In doing so, “they don’t merely serve as illustrations to theory; they picture theory“ (Mitchell 1995, p. 49). In this sense, memes are pictorial picture theory because they reflect on the picture practices of their own making.
An issue with this conceptualization is, however, that internet memes are not always metapictures, even if in most cases memes can be phenomenologically described as pictures because they are formatted as JPGs or GIFs to be more shareable.
Analytically, memes should be treated as semiotic metatexts that consist of images and words (sometimes sounds) of other media. For analyzing memes as ads, I have to semiotically extend the picture practice analysis in some way. The question still remains how text, image and medium relate to each other, especially in terms of practice.
To this end, I will draw on thoughts by Marshall McLuhan, who actually based his media theory on the analysis of advertising. In his first book, “McLuhan searches for semiotics beneath semiotics – levels of meaning beyond the messenger’s intent or the recipient’s awareness” (Meggs 2011, p. xi). This approach seems quite appropriate for my methodological reconsideration of the picture practice analyses. Still, I have to figure out if (and how) McLuhan’s media theory can be relocated in practice theory.
The ongoing data collection is another, more empirical issue. So far, I plan to analyze the meme marketing of Sixt (see below), Aldi and Lidl, which are examples rich in media knowledge. All three examples are based in Germany, however. I am worried that my analysis will be too unilateral, if I exclusively focus on German advertising. This is why I am still in the process of searching for other empirical examples in an international context, e.g. ads for Gucci, Netflix, Wendy’s, Burger King, McDonald’s and so on.
Eventually, I will have to figure out how to justify which examples I will include in my analysis. Methodically, it would be fitting to select examples based on the practices used for mimicry, for example, the ad for Sixt is tagged with #Merkelmeme to appear like an internet meme.
Furthermore, I must gather examples on memeing, too. So far, I plan to explore so-called ‘dank memes’ (Granata 2019), which are meme-critical memes, and in particular the subreddits r/FellowKids, where meme marketing is evaluated by users.
How these examples of memeing compare to the examples of meme marketing remains to be seen. My plan is to project the media knowledge of meme marketing onto examples of memeing to examine if it compares, and if not, how it differs.
As memeing depends on knowing how a particular meme is made and used, each meme is a tacit guide to this practice. In my analysis, I aim to praxeologically explicate this know-how by observing memes in their specific contexts, comparing marketing to meme culture as proposed above. To observe the different environments, memes are collected as screenshots (which are in some way metapictures themselves).
On one level, my aim is to analyze what these metapictures are about and where they reference from; on another level, I want to explore how memes are designed, circulated and received. My hypothesis is that there are some similarities between these phenomena, since meme marketing is a mimicry of memeing, but most certainly there are differences in content, form and practice as well.
For example, the German rental car company Sixt posted an image macro on Twitter, which shows Angela Merkel at the G7 summit in 2015. Their advertisement features a similar catchphrase as other Merkel memes, using the Impact font, which is (or was) considered “the meme font” (Brideau and Berret 2014, p. 309). However, their advertisement differs from genuine Merkel memes in regard to the forced cooperate design.
In contrast to other Merkel memes, the advertisement is tinted in an orange tone so that it fits with the Sixt’s logo that is prominently placed in the right upper corner of the picture. The text of the ad is about a stockholders’ meeting and the allegedly high dividend of their shares. Uncommonly for an image macro, this text is not placed at the top and the bottom of the picture, but only at the bottom in different font sizes. In this way, Sixt is rebranding the Merkel meme for their own marketing.
Progress of the Project
So far, I have finished two introductory subchapters about memes and advertisement. In the subchapter about memes, I place this internet phenomenon between semiotic text and social practice (Krieg-Holz and Bülow 2019) and examine how meme studies work with these two approches. There are some formal features such as the Impact font, certain templates and other formal standards that suggest that memes are a type of text. However, creating, circulating and receiving memes, i.e. memeing, is a social practice. From a media-praxeological perspective, I argue that meme studies should factor in both: memes and memeing.
In the subchapter on ads, I look into the relationship between advertising and media (Deuze 2016; Gustafsson 2006). Most media, especially mass and social media, financially depend on advertising. In turn, advertising needs mass and social media to generate attention for products, services and brands. This dependence causes media to be structured after advertising, for example commercial breaks in TV serials, but also advertising to adapt to the standards of carrier media, for example different formats on- and offline.
Consequently, advertising must have knowledge about the production, circulation and reception of media and their forms such as internet memes. From a German media studies perspective, I therefore propose a media-sensitive approach to advertising and memeing, which can shed light on the complex relationship of these two practices.
This post is a shortened and rewritten version of my PhD summary that I submitted to the
AoIR 2021 Doctoral Colloquium
Brideau, Kate; Berret, Charles (2014): A Brief Introduction to Impact: ‘The Meme Font‘. In Journal of Visual Culture 13 (3), pp. 307–313.
Bury, Beata (2016): Creative Use of Internet Memes in Advertising. In World Scientific News 57, pp. 33–41.
Csordás, Tamás; Horváth, Dóra; Mitev, Ariel; Markos-Kujbus, Éva (2017): User-Generated Internet Memes as Advertising Vehicles. Visual Narratives as Special Consumer Information Sources and Consumer Tribe Integrators. In Gabriele Siegert, M. Bjørn Rimscha, Stephanie Grubenmann (Eds.): Commercial Communication in the Digital Age. Berlin, Boston: De Gruyter, pp. 247–265.
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Douglas, Nick (2014): It’s Supposed to Look Like Shit: The Internet Ugly Aesthetic. In Journal of Visual Culture 13 (3), pp. 314–339.
Granata, Yvette (2019): Meme Dankness: Floating Glittery Trash for an Economic Heresy. In Alfie Bown, Daniel Bristow (Eds.): Post Memes. Seizing the Memes of Production. Santa Barbara: punctum books, pp. 251–275.
Gustafsson, Karl Erik (2006): Advertising and the Development of Media: The Forgotten Connection. In Journal of Media Business Studies 3 (1), pp. 19–31.
Krieg-Holz, Ulrike; Bülow, Lars (2019): Internet-Memes: Praktik oder Textsorte. In Lars Bülow, Michael Johann (Eds.): Politische Internet-Memes. Theoretische Herausforderungen und empirische Befunde. Berlin: Frank & Timme, pp. 89–113.
Larsen, Jonas (2008): Practices and Flows of Digital Photography. An Ethnographic Framework. In Mobilities 3 (1), pp. 141–160.
Meggs, Philip B. (2011): Introduction to the Fiftieth Anniversary Edition. In Marshall McLuhan: The Mechanical Bride. Folklore of Industrial Man. London: Duckworth Overlook, pp. ix–xiii.
Mitchell, W. J. T. (1995): Metapictures. In W. J. T. Mitchell: Picture Theory. Essays on Verbal and Visual Representation. Chicago, London: The University of Chicago Press, pp. 35–82.
Nissenbaum, Asaf; Shifman, Limor (2017): Internet Memes as Contested Cultural Capital: The Case of 4chan’s /b/ Board. In New Media & Society 19 (4), pp. 483–501.