Living in the internet age is pretty weird. We’ve gone through a paradigm shift from being afraid to meet people from online in real life to having the possibility of meeting many friends and significant others in and outside of cyberspace. It’s been quite the change. With this openness, increasing ubiquity of access, and wider spread of ideas, the internet has sort of developed its own culture. This has happened to the degree that even specific social networks and sites have their own flavor or subculture; people have a mindset about Reddit, Tumblr, etc., and those sites tend to have self-identified traits. Perhaps more than traits, each of these subcultures perpetuate their own style of memes, and each amplifies their frequency of use to a different degree. Even though they existed long before the internet, memes have seemed to really pick up a lot more steam in the past few years. One area really affected by the memetic culture of the internet is advertising. In particular, social media profiles for products have adapted more humorous approaches to gathering support and fan attention. Nerdy properties were quick to jump on the meme bandwagon, and less geeky products were equally as quick to add memes and other genre references to their plans. I want to talk about both a bit more, since not only do they both show the proliferation of nerd sensibilities to the greater public consciousness, but this usage also shows how companies are making an effort to cater to what people want a bit more.
I’ll start with properties that are already based on genre products, to show that they understand their fans’ (and possible new fans’) sense of humor. The Nintendo and Sonic the Hedgehog brands are two of the most in-touch with how fans participate in memes. For instance, during Nintendo’s Digital Events (which were often used in place of press conferences) they would include humorous skits based in absurdist humor. Some include the executive staff being transformed into the cast of Star Fox; the president of the Japanese and American branches fighting like Smash Bros. characters; or staff members holding and watching bananas—it became an inside joke and they ran with it. Additionally, the phrase “my body is ready” became used quite frequently in shows, tweets, and press releases due to its spread among the greater internet (after fans took off with it) after an off-hand use in a press conference a few years ago. These instances show that Nintendo understands to some degree what sensibilities their fans have, or at least know what will get stuck in fans’ heads. This is just another factor which makes this profit-seeking corporation somehow still seem like they “care about the customer” even if their actions often do feel tone-deaf or capitalism based. When corporations seem as though all of their moves are purely to gain money, customers feel exploited and thus less likely to get on board with buying their products.
The Sonic the Hedgehog brand leans into this humor full stop. A casual visit to their Twitter or Facebook pages will show some advertising for upcoming games or promotions, but you’ll see jokes more frequently. There’s reference to community memes like how bad Sonic ’06 was and adding “& Knuckles” to everything, ironic humor (building up how edgy Shadow is), trolling other video game accounts, or just re-appropriating internet memes to include Sonic characters often with intentionally bad art. Again, utilizing internet humor shows that the company somewhat understands what humor works there on a meta level: they are seeing what jokes consumers are making, and rather than simply reposting them verbatim in a literal way, they are adapting the pictures the correct way – using their memetic meaning. More importantly, Sonic‘s brand has suffered from sub-par performance in the past few years. With their mascot being based on a 90’s sense of cool, they had to evolve into something else. One of the more widespread ways to appeal to people in 2016 happens to be irony and memes, which makes sense for a character so rooted in “what is cool right now.” I don’t have hard numbers to prove if revenue has improved, but I have anecdotally seen less cynicism towards the franchise.
Some non-geeky businesses also use nerdy humor and memes. The primary one that comes to mind is Arby’s. Their ads on YouTube and latest television ads show that they have decided to go for that absurdist sense of humor that Old Spice has been known for: calm introduction to some outlandish statement that vaguely relates to the feeling of what they’re selling, and then someone yells at you why it is good. This works for some, not so much for others, but, their Facebook ads are what strike me as oddly nerdy and specific. With the rise of Pokemon Go, of course they had to make a reference to which team the company would be, but they’ve made posts referring to Pokemon in the past. As well, they’ve made reference to Naruto, Solid Snake, Overwatch, Mirror’s Edge, Steven Universe, Doctor Who, and so many more. Usually, the reference is made by assembling food, ketchup, or packaging to resemble some sort of symbol or addition to a drawing from those series along with a caption. It is a strange choice for a fast food chain, and hasn’t gotten me personally to eat more of their food, but I almost always share their posts. That’s free advertising simply because they appealed to my sensibilities. Also, the idea of Goku’s hair being made out of hash brown triangles is hilarious to me. Other companies have utilized similar strategies like Denny’s or Funyuns, but this is probably the most committed example. Denny’s is active on Tumblr inserting their foods onto images of babies, pillows, or other non-food situations, as well as replying to Tumblr asks in humorous ways. Funyuns is known, at least in a joking way, for making posts and jokes on Tumblr that don’t seem to make any real sense and are purposely trying to be ridiculous. But no matter the absurdity, it does work and shows that they understand what it takes to go viral.
This all points to the ubiquity of nerd culture. Obviously, brands are using these types of jokes because they are relatable and work for outreach. This all matters because success is made and broken by fan perception; when fans like what you’re doing, there is a high chance of them staying loyal and keeping your name circulating in the various feeds. This sort of support is what keeps brands going. And as much as I’m not some sort of company shill, I know that media and entertainment is a business. If you don’t bring in the money, your show doesn’t go on. Since most companies do some sort of advertising, I think it is worth noting what works and why.
This type of advertising works, again, because using the “humor of the people” reduces how tone-deaf a company seems. When media is released that doesn’t match what fans claim to want, it can sometimes feel as though the creators don’t know what people want anymore. In the spirit of using memes and jokes, nothing is worse than using them incorrectly (wrong context, post-relevancy, that sort of thing), and using them correctly can show that a corporation and their media team have really put the time and effort in to stay relevant and on the pulse. Although joking around with the internet does not completely cure this, it is a step in the right direction. This isn’t the only way for products to be advertised; direct approaches are useful for less genre-heavy items, but humor is certainly a tried-and-true method to reach the masses. Catering to memetic culture and millennials most likely has a shelf life, but a concerted effort to stay in the current consciousness does not. Companies that care about staying in-the-know will stay in the spotlight, and hopefully through this, we continue to get ads and products that resonate with us.