Oh hi dad, welcome to the disco: memes in ads

Here’s a trend we could all have done without: internet memes plucked from the web and slapped, contextless and out-of-place, on ads.

By far the worst offender here is Virgin Media’s new campaign by 18 Feet & Rising (sorry BBH, someone in the comments corrected me!), using the ‘Success Kid’ photo:

(Image courtesy of Gene Hunt)

Oh and here’s O2 using the very same image on their Facebook page:

Not. Cool.

Another recent offender – Ritz Crackers:

(Apologies for my craptastic smartphone photography – that says
“The wheels on the bus go NOM NOM NOM”)

So how does this happen?

It goes like this. Mr Person works in the creative department of an ad agency, and is a big internet geek. He knows about and likes memes, and rarely sees anything in mainstream culture that reflects them well (articles about planking in the Telegraph six months after it died do not count). So when he’s creating concepts for whatever brand he happens to be working on, he thinks “Wouldn’t it be cool if they used X meme? It fits here” and puts it in his idea.

But what he forgets is this: when someone walks past that ad, they don’t see the cool creative person who came up with it. They see a big, hairy Virgin Media logo and a sales message. And those things together just don’t work.

Plus, with the amount of time it takes to make an ad, it’s been months since that meme was relevant, resulting in even more of a late-to-the-party vibe.

Memes come from of a mindset of having fun and creating things for the sake of it. Ads come from a mindset of needing a vehicle for a sales message. And when the latter uses the former, it pollutes that innocent fun with self-interest, taking something that had group ownership and using it for their own ends.

And what happens when your client says “OK, the Success Kid ad was a huge hit, we want to make him a brand spokesperson”? You can’t, because Success Kid is no longer a toddler but a school-age child, and you only ever had one photo of him. You didn’t even do a shoot that you can take leftover images from.

This sort of thing is fucking lazy, and a big risk. Piggybacking on existing social currency means the idea didn’t originate with the brand/their agency and therefore isn’t controllable or ownable. This is how we ended up with two competing businesses using the exact same image. Where’s the branding? Slapping a logo onto something you found on the internet doesn’t make it yours, especially when it’s been around for years and has its own preconceptions.

Preconceptions like the fact that memes are made to be mixed and re-mixed. Which means thousands of versions of Success Kid  already exist, many of them with captions that Virgin Media probably wouldn’t want associated with their brand:

And brilliantly, that happens even when you stick the meme on a billboard:

Serves them right, to be honest.

10 thoughts on “Oh hi dad, welcome to the disco: memes in ads

  1. Myles Winstone (@bruthamyles) says:

    Advertising agencies are renowned for their ability to rip-off other people’s work. Whether it’s internet memes, short films, artists work or even other company’s adverts (a case of advertising eating itself).

    Phones4U have been terrible offenders over the last couple of years. For example, their Jesus advert took its Christ image from the film Dogma.

    The Copy(c)unts site hasn’t been updated for a while but it had some great examples of stealing by advertising agencies. Take a look:


  2. Matt Cole says:

    Interesting theory. Tragically wrong I’m afraid. The phrase “Nom Nom Nom” passed from being purely an internet meme into common language ages ago. We used it in a line that made us chuckle and fit with the client’s brief of giving Mini Ritz a bit of cheeky personality. It was presented to the client who also thought it was funny and we stuck it on the side of some buses. It was a very low key campaign that has turned out to be popular with quite a few people who don’t really mind the big hairy logo alongside the funny little line. Particularly the group of kids overheard singing “The Wheels On The Bus Go Nom Nom Nom” while waiting for the bus recently and the tweets claiming it to be “the best advert ever” (it’s not, but god bless ’em anyway). If we were shamelessly ripping off someone else’s work I’d understand your beef. As it is we just used a phrase that we thought was funny in an ad for crackers.

  3. alzx says:

    I really like your post, apart from this point:

    “Piggybacking on existing social currency means the idea didn’t originate with the brand/their agency and therefore isn’t controllable or ownable”

    Agencies/companies have ‘piggybacked on existing social currency’ since day dot. Ironically, I caught part of the Mad Men episode recently where they recreate the ‘Bye Bye Birdy’ ad. Same thing. This is simply the latest attempt. So I’d just be careful broadly lambasting this activity in and of itself – it’s much better when you argue why memes specifically don’t work because of things particular to their nature.

    However, you are correct. It is lazy and risky. But personally, I’m more interested in if it works than the question of is it a ‘good thing to do’ from an intellectual/creative perspective.

    My question would be: does it keep happening because it works, or because it is an easy out? If it works, do it*. Advertisers aren’t paid to be creative for the sake of it. They’re paid to generate sales.

    *All legal, moral, ethical, brand-aligned caveats applied of course…

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