In recent weeks we’ve seen the return of ‘Hide The Pain Harold’ and the emergence of a new meme, ‘Girl Explaining’ (below), which is quickly making its way across social media. Here, Wunderman Thompson’s Rebecca Pinn explains how advertisers can get creative with meme culture without being creepy.
Just when you thought ‘Hide The Pain Harold’ had forced his last smile, he’s back, this time in a series of digital video ads for Vodafone Italia, where we learn that winning a new electric Mini has fired him up. almost
“Hide The Pain Harold” is, for the uninitiated, a meme based on a series of stock photos of an old man whose genial smile is never enough to mask the sadness in his eyes.
Will brands jump on the “Girl Explaining” meme?
Well, it’s come out of stock image libraries, gone viral on social media, and is now the face of numerous ad campaigns, from a used car dealership to a discount program for British students until, appropriately enough, the Hungarian version of Samaritans (András Arató, the real Harold, lives in Budapest).
Spicing up your ad game with meme content isn’t a new phenomenon, with ‘Success Kid’ hitting the headlines a decade ago telling us how excited he was for his parents *check notes* to access HD channels on Virgin Media at no additional cost.
(No points for guessing who changed their shirt from green to red.)
But as the volume and speed at which memes spread only increases, many marketers are likely to be faced with a decision about whether memes will give them the hilarious/relatable/culture-centered result they’re looking for. Or if they’ll just make consumers cringe.
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Let’s be honest. When brands do it right, it works. But when they’re wrong, yes. So let’s break it down by looking at some of the highs and lows of memes in advertising and what the success stories have in common.
Better understand your audience, one meme at a time
For memes, memes have become human truths in a picture. Their ability to distill complex emotional thoughts into a single message means they are almost the purest forms of information.
Finding wild memes in their natural habitat can give you more than a week’s worth of think tanks. Observing the patterns of how people meme (I checked, it’s a real word) about a given topic can act as strategic shortcuts, as well as providing inspiration for creative minds.
How deep the brand digs into this live feed is up to them. Bumble harnessed the online rhetoric and meme sharing around the often unpredictable world of online dating, using it to inform a distinctive, relatable and playful tone of voice that went down a storm with its millennial users.
Unfortunately, just because your target base uses a meme doesn’t mean a brand has to: an infamous victim is the commodification of Megan Thee Stallion’s “Hot Girl Summer” trend butchered by brands like Wendy’s, Forever 21 and Maybelline.
The official drink of Hot Girl Summer https://t.co/hypy2kVdTG
— Wendy’s (@Wendys) July 9, 2019
I hate to break it to you, but your lemonade is not “the official drink of Hot Girl Summer.”
Making your brand a meme
Naturally, a large social media team will be immersed in all the news, controversies and jokes that light up the feeds at any given time during the work week. Instead of constantly trying to start a conversation about your brand, supporting what’s already being said at the right time can take you from 10 likes to 10,000.
Imagine the scene. Kourtney Kardashian takes a huge bite out of a four-finger KitKat. Just wrong. And thousands of people are up in arms on social media about the “right” way to eat one. So what does the brand do? Don’t run away; further fuels the debate.
Becoming a meme is, in theory, the kind of moment brand managers dream of: it speaks to reaching critical mass in terms of talkability, iconicity of your brand, and showing that you’ve made a genuine connection with the people
You never know how far becoming a meme can take you. For KitKat, it was prime-time breakfast TV. yum
Making memes mainstream in advertising
The way the brand chooses to reflect memes in its creative output is a skillful balancing act. Get it right, and you’ll be doing what memes were always intended to do, providing momentary entertainment – kudos to Sony Pictures for embracing the Spider-Man-targeting meme with a joke that fans loved.
Of course, we have THE meme. #SpiderManNoWayHome comes home March 22nd digitally and April 12th on 4K UHD and Blu-ray!
Book now: https://t.co/NdIF00TmQm pic.twitter.com/wENrBVfe7S
— Sony Pictures (@SonyPictures) February 23, 2022
More elaborate than a simple social post, some brands could step it up, as Vodafone did with ‘Hide The Pain Harold’. I personally love it, regardless of whether you know Harold or not, the facial expression that made him famous is the feeling that Vodafone is trying to convey.
However, I have to question whether Vodafone have played it safe and therefore failed to maintain originality – Harold first hit the scene in 2011… Something currently popular could have a bigger impact, but it would have a higher risk that in two weeks there will be a new meme of the month. But more often than not, the worst outcome is that the creative meme sinks without a trace.
Meme culture is bright, funny, easy to digest, and offers amazing insight into how humans feel about life. Their meteoric rise to inevitability in our social feeds can teach us a lot as advertisers.
And it looks like it’s here to stay. So instead of dwelling on “old hat” techniques for fear of moving with the times, we should embrace it. After all, the fire is being fueled.
But approach with caution. There is a temptation, as memes are constantly evolving, to react and use them without regard for audience and long-term brand ambition. What might seem like viral low-hanging fruit could break your brand and cause irreversible damage.
Yes, “let’s make a meme” should never be the starting point of a conversation. But maybe a conversation could be started because of one.
Rebecca Pinn is a senior planner at Wunderman Thompson.