Why Meme Ads Don’t Work

OpinionStaff Op-Ed

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Be me. Or at least, be the me I was when I was a freshman in 2012. The world is bright, you’re still being a little baby about not getting into UCLA, and, more importantly, Blueprint LSAT is running a notable series of ads on the newspaper stands around Price Center. Okay, so maybe you don’t have to be me to remember the ads.

They’re instantly recognizable–large stock photos of families and animals with big white letters (the font is Impact, if you’re savvy to that kind of thing) in the classic two-line Internet meme format. The ads center around the subjects in some way failing to use Blueprint’s service to prepare for the LSAT and landing themselves with a twelve-year-old with a GoPro and not enough parental supervision-sized “FAIL,” invariably dooming their futures. In one notable example, I remember a picture of a little girl on a tricycle pedaling away from her parents, who had failed to use Blueprint, with the classic punchline “PEDALS AWAY FOREVER” across the bottom of the ad.

If you remember these ads, you’re probably rolling your eyes right now. I don’t think I remember talking to a single person who found the ads funny. We collectively sighed as we walked past the failed attempt at Youth Humor™ and wished it would go away.

Fast forward to 2015. You can be me again, if you want. You’re in Peterson 104 and you notice a piece of paper stuck to the back of the chair in front of you with blue painter’s tape. It’s another ad, this time for some vague dating-app-thing called Penguin that’s supposed to be the answer to the “fuck on the first date, if you can call it a date” hookup culture that’s apparently plaguing our world of dating. Right smack-dab in the middle is a meme, this time in the 2015 Instagram style, where there’s a single white box with black Arial text at the top. There’s a picture of a chicken running away from a dubious “Netflix and chill” session.

This time, the meme itself doesn’t even make mention of the app, and you vaguely remember seeing this exact meme on Twitter a month ago. This ad, too, stinks of that out-of-touch referential humor that companies too-often fall into as a way of trying to connect with college-aged audiences.

In theory, it sounds like a winning combo, right? Kids love the Internet, the Internet is full of memes, and you can fart out a meme in the time it takes to steal a picture off of Google and paste some text over it (or in the case of Penguin, just steal the picture). So, why is it that Internet humor is so historically unsuccessful in the world of marketing? There are a few reasons.

First, Internet humor is inherently effervescent. On the Internet, you’re only as funny as your last joke, and only as memorable as often as you show up on someone’s timeline. That means to stay ahead, you’re forced to create and share content constantly. Since there’s no physical medium involved, there’s no overhead between creating a joke and publishing it to your audience. Like grains of sand passing through millions of impatient fingers, you have to have a certain sense of detachment from what you create. You could make the best joke in the world, but in a week, it’ll probably be dead. If it’s not dead by then, at least, you’ll be sick of it.

Taking a joke off the Internet and turning it into a print ad, or god forbid a commercial, is a little like trying to strap a cockring onto one of those liquid and glitter-filled water weenies. It’s next to impossible to pin down, and by the time you’re finished, all you’ve done is waste your time. Trust me, I know from experience.

Since the Internet is all about fast humor, and publishing that humor in bulk, people tend to tire of jokes quickly. You might chuckle the first time you see a meme, smirk the second, and by the time it appears the third time you’re over it. As a result, the amount of time your audience spends on the internet (hint: for most people my age, that’s a lot) directly correlates to how quickly a certain type of joke stops being funny.

Also worth considering is that college kids have an ear for being pandered to. We’re on a constant witch hunt to point out that which doesn’t belong. There are whole wings of Facebook and Reddit roped off for the express purpose of making fun of old people on social media. If your joke hits a sour note among college kids, you’re done for.

For most of the people making these ads, then, they’re in a losing race against time. Pair that with the fact that the very act of having a job means you spend less time on the Internet, and are less in tune with what is and isn’t funny, and it’s basically impossible to make a successful ad using something you found on the Internet.

Maybe, in the end, the jokes don’t actually have to be funny to be successful to work as ads. I mean, here I am talking about a Blueprint campaign from three years ago. But I don’t think the person behind the ads intended to create something universally despised as a way of pushing LSAT prep courses.

If you’re considering using some sort of referential Internet-based humor as a basis for an ad campaign in the near future, I urge you to reconsider. There are a million ways to be funny, and not one of them involves forcing us to look at another meme you stole from Google Images because you couldn’t be bothered to come up with a joke of your own.


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