Advertising creatives have always known the power of memes, even if they didn't always use the term. For decades major marketers, with their command of the airwaves and commitment to repetition, were often the ones to launch memes. Consider Alka-Seltzer's "I can't believe I ate the whole thing":
Or Wendy's "Where's the beef?" ...
... which got picked up and repurposed from preschools to presidential debates:
The splintering of media channels has made it hard to claim that kind of mindshare by brute force. Add the democratization of publishing and the premium people place on discovering the new, and you have a situation where memes can start anywhere, take off like rockets, and fizzle out a week later. Whereas advertisers once spawned memes, now the better strategy may be to surf them.
So expect to see more creative in the mode of the Wonderful Pistachios campaign, which is simple enough to cycle through executions quickly and cheaply. The campaign started out conventionally, using celebrities, and was highly successful: National TV spots in its first year yielded a 233% increase in sales, and double-digit gains have followed in the years since. But now the ads include memes, such as YouTube's infamous Honey Badger:
And Secret Service agents partying with prostitutes:
In her paper "An Anatomy of a YouTube Meme," Limor Shifman of Hebrew University analyzes 30 videos that went viral and finds major commonalities: ordinary people, flawed masculinity, humor, simplicity, repetitiveness, and whimsical content. It's the perfect recipe, Shifman concludes, for "invoking further creative dialogue." Much of that dialogue comes in the form of clever redos designed to delight particular constituencies. Thus the ridiculously catchy dance video "Gangnam Style" ...
... was tweaked for robot lovers by a Transformers reenactment:
... and infiltrated political circles as "Romney Style." True to form, Wonderful Pistachios debuted an ad featuring Psy during this year's Super Bowl:
A major advertiser with a big budget should be more reliably able to nail the execution for its constituency — snack eaters, for example, or Lego fans. This is the opportunity revealed by the newest pistachios ads. Expect more advertisers to follow suit.
This is the first in a series of posts from our March issue on the future of advertising. Stay tuned for more "Creative That Cracks the Code" over the coming weeks; topics include The Ad as a Game; Collaborating With the Crowd; Just Enough Humor; A New Social Movement; Ads That "Go Native"; Apps as the New Ads; Personalized Products; and Ads in the Public Sphere.
We also want to know which ads campaigns strike you as innovative; tell us below and we might analyze your pick as part of this series.
An HBR Insight Center