A timeline of brands' 10-year love affair with memes
Memes. You love 'em. We love 'em. But you know who really can't seem to get enough of them? Brands!
From Netflix to Sony and Denny's to Wendy's, brand social media managers have increasingly relied–overelied?–on trending internet jokes to score a quick point with their followers and, ideally, beyond.
By the end of 2009, memes were simple pictures with overlaid text shared in more-or-less obscure parts of the internet to get some laughs. The internet-influenced definition of “meme” debuted in the Merrian-Webster dictionary in 2015 as “an amusing or interesting item (such as a captioned picture or video) or genre of items that is spread widely online especially through social media.”
Over the years, as social platforms themselves took over our phones, memes have been used to convey humor, opinion or reactions. Memes have permeated daily lives so much that the noun is also often used as a verb.
Of course, once a meme gets adopted by brands, the joke is dead and the meme becomes obsolete. Here at Ad Age, we're self-aware enough to know that simply writing about memes like this merits an "OK, Boomer" even though the author of this piece is decidedly millennial. And yet! Brands insist hijacking these little cultural watercooler moments because they know quickest, wittiest retort can still get viral love. Unless, that is, if the meme is executed poorly.
Here, then, are the memes of the past decade that were so popular, they couldn’t escape brands’ social media war rooms. This year in particular was fertile ground, so we'll start there:
It’s not often that a meme will drive a wedge between generations. The highly sarcastic “OK, Boomer” meme had the power to do so, though. Fittingly, it took off on TikTok, where Gen Zers used it to critique condescending older people. Often, memes die as quickly as they are born, but “OK, Boomer” ignited enough anger with Boomers (and not a few maligned Gen X'ers) that it lasted a solid several weeks. Netflix used it to promote its new Nickelodeon shows, while brands like Natural Light and Four Loko had some fun at their competitors’ expense. Fox even filed a trademark for the phrase. See more examples here.
When Disney+ launched in November with its "Star Wars" episodical “The Mandolorian,” audiences quickly fell in love with the big-eyed 50-year-old space baby and began sharing images of the cutie. Brands did the same.
Art Basel banana
When Maurizio Cattelan’s “masterpiece” of a banana duct taped to a wall sold for $120,000 at Art Basel at the beginning of December, people began sharing their own homages (to put it generously) online. It wasn’t long until brands, including Burger King, Perrier and Sweetgreen shared their takes. See more examples here.
Sex and baseball
Netflix took the meme game to a new, uh, inappropriate level in December when it made a meme about sex go viral. While some social media managers steered away from the fun, there was a surprising number of brands willing to participate, throwing brand safety out the door. Playing off a user’s tweet about sex and baseball, Netflix asked: “what’s something you can say during sex but also when you manage a brand twitter account?” To which brands like Ben & Jerry’s, Pop-Tarts, Instagram and Audi responded with their innuendos. Today, the tweet has generated nearly 27,000 comments, 111,000 retweets and 436,000 likes. We'd tell Netflix to just chill, but that's already a thing too.
The “VSCO girl” meme that took over social media this past summer also due to the power of TikTok. Named after the photo-editing app, the meme centered around teenage girls who use the app to achieve a particular trying-to-look-like-you’re-not-trying look. “VSCO girls” also come with a line of brands they use in their daily lives. A VSCO girl “starter pack,” including Fjallraven backpacks, Crocs and Pura Vida bracelets, made the internet rounds and brands replied by sharing their own “starter packs,” whether they fit with the VSCO aesthetic or not. Sksksksk.
In September, a meme joking about a raid on Area 51 quickly grew into an opportunity for brands when the idea evolved into a party in the desert. Brands like Bud Light, Arby’s and Slim Jim chimed in various ways. See examples here:
Now let’s take a look back through the decade. Remember these?
Laurel or Yanny? (2018)
The largest social media debate since 2015’s “The Dress” (see below) was whether you heard “Yanny” or “Laurel” from a sound clip posted on Reddit. While plenty of brands, including Sony, Nesquik and Carl’s Jr., got involved in the debate, some responses were better than others. (For the record, we heard Yannel.)
Salt Bae (2017)
Turkish chef Nusret Gökçe became known as “Salt Bae” when his sexy style of seasoning meat went viral. He currently has more than 24.5 million followers on Instagram and was the subject of this insane New York Times profile (the dude has 13 kids back home). Brands from Domino’s to Sonic got in on the meme.
Solar Eclipse (2017)
The total solar eclipse in August of 2017 was a rare moment where literally everyone was talking about the same thing–and therefore a golden opportunity for brands on social media. A multitude of brands, such as Hostess, Nickelodeon and Krispy Kreme, took part, creating their own eclipses with their products. The creativity bar was pretty low on this one, so it wasn’t difficult to participate.
Distracted boyfriend (2017)
Who would have thought a silly, simple stock photo of a dude checking out a woman as his girlfriend looked on disgusted would be viral material? But its deceptively simple narrative and timelessness inspired brands including Jimmy John’s, Penguin Random House, and Tinder to get crafty. This is one meme that has lasted, still popping up every now and again on social feeds.
In the May of 2017 a one-word tweet by President Donald Trump went viral. All it said was: "covfefe.” Within 24 hours, the hashtag #covfefe had been used online 1.4 million times and 32 trademark applications filed to use the neologism for everything from coffee to clothing. On social, the famous misspelling caught on with coffee brands like Costa Coffee, but also brands like Virgin Trains that tried their best to slip it in their tweets in any way they could.
Zoom in (2017)
In February of 2017, Twitter user @SNCKPCK posted the original “zoom in” meme featuring a dog that instructed users to “zoom in” on its nose. Once they did, there were words instructing people to zoom in on other parts of the picture. People began sharing their own versions. Brands like Denny’s, Jimmy John’s and Innocent Drinks took note and created their own. With more than 68,000 retweets within the first 24 hours, Denny’s zoomed far beyond others.
Drake’s “Views” (2016)
Drake is hip hop's first meme king. One of his images that especially caught on with brands was the Canadian rapper's “Views From the 6” cover album art, which he shared on social in May 2016. It featured a minuscule Drake sitting atop Toronto’s CN Tower. It wasn’t long until people Photoshopping tiny Drake on top of other famous landmarks and objects. Brands did too.
The Mannequin Challenge (2016)
Admit it: You participated in the Mannequin Challenge. The concept involved a moving camera filming a group of people frozen in place like mannequins, usually while the song “Black Beatles” by Rae Sremmurd played in the background, and shared with the hashtag #MannequinChallenge. It’s believed the original video came from a group of high school students from Jacksonville, Florida. Target did it with actual mannequins, Denny’s did it with mannequin diners, but it seemed this meme was almost designed for Pixar, which perfectly shared a clip from “Toy Story” of how the toys reacted whenever Andy came in the bedroom.
“Damn Daniel” (2016)
High school students Daniel Lara and Joshua Holz reached meme fame when a video compilation of Lara walking around his high school campus and Holz complimenting his look (which included white Vans shoes), saying “Damn Daniel.” It was looped more than two million times on Vine, retweeted more than 300,000 times and received 400,000 likes on Twitter. Vans gave Lara a lifetime supply of shoes on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show,” and other brands like Clorox, Axe and Denny’s chimed in on social. Clorox referenced some dirty non-branded sneakers that needed cleaning, because it legally couldn’t use Vans. Damn, trademark lawyers.
“Dat boi” (2016)
The silly appeal of the “Dat boi,” the unicycling frog meme was manna for brands as it circulated on Tumblr and Twitter in May of 2016. Denny’s, Nintendo and Jolly Rancher all got in on the fun.
Although the phenomenon of ASMR–short for autonomous sensory meridian response–is undergoing a bit of a resurgence as of late, the idea took shape in 2016, when people began going to YouTube specifically to listen to videos featuring specific sounds. In 2016, KFC, Dove and Pepsi all released videos featuring ASMR sounds. KFC had Colonel Saunders talk about pocket squares and eating fried chicken, focusing on their sounds.
The Dress (2015)
What began as a post on Tumblr about what actual color a dress was (black and blue or white and gold?), turned into a heated worldwide debate. It became fair game for brands, which made it mostly about their own products. (For the record, we see a blue and black dress.)
Bunny ACII art (2014)
Images created through text characters, also known as ASCII art, became a popular form of meme throughout the decade, especially within the confines of a tweet, and one that brands continue to use from time to time. One of the most popular was a bunny in 2014. This bunny holds signs alerting people of its opinion, mostly in Twitter threads. Brands like Naked Juice, Oreo, AT&T and Pizza Hut shared their own as the cute little character went viral.
The Ice Bucket Challenge (2014)
Although the Ice Bucket Challenge (where people threw buckets of ice on themselves to raise money for the ALS Association and challenged their friends to do the same), raised millions for charity, some brands used it to goad their competition. Chili’s did it to challenge Applebee’s and Chipotle, and Samsung used it in a YouTube video to show off the features of its waterproof Galaxy S5 and challenged the iPhone. In those instances, people clapped back at the brands for using a charity event to push products.
In 2014, brands like Olive Garden, Taco Bell and Sonos, began using the term “bae” in social posts, imitating how people were using it online and in real life. It wasn’t long before people began to tell brands to stop. It just wasn't on fleek.
Harlem Shake (2013)
Before the Ice Bucket Challenge, came the “Harlem Shake,” easily the most popular video meme of the year, where people performed convulsive movements to the song “Harlem Shake” by Baauer and uploaded them to Facebook and YouTube. Red Bull, Pepsi, TopShop, Beats by Dre and Lego all did videos. Red Bull’s video, where a skydiver does the dance as he’s falling from a plane, has generated 7.4 million views on YouTube over time.
Double Rainbow (2010)
The decade kicked off with a double dose of magic when Paul Vasquez posted a video of his ecstatic reaction to encountering a twin rainbows in the wild. It was one of the first videos shared widely across social platforms and referenced endlessly online. And brands took note. Both Vodaphone and Microsoft booked Vasquez for spots to promote their products. Microsoft’s spot, in which Vasquez uses Windows Live Photo Gallery to share his photo of the double rainbow, saw more than a million views on YouTube in September of 2010. Whoa, that's so intense.