Brands Are Using Memes to Try to Attract Teens

But it often comes across as forced and insincere

Kristin Merrilees
Aug 17, 2019 · 6 min read
woman holding pepsi cola cans
Photo by emma valerio on Unsplash

The word “meme” was coined by biologist Richard Dawkins in his book The Selfish Gene, published in 1976. He defines a meme as “an idea, behavior or style that spreads from person to person within a culture,” according to Wired writer Olivia Solon.

Today, you probably can’t go 10 seconds on a social media feed without seeing a meme. (However, while Dawkins described memes as spreading through imitation as genes do, today’s internet memes are purposefully changed from one to the next). Memes are everywhere, gently poking fun at nearly everything, from politicians to celebrity breakups to the latest social trends. They are especially popular among the younger generations. As a teenager, I find that memes are a constant undercurrent in both pop culture and my daily conversations. My peers and I are constantly, even subconsciously, finding ways to connect memes to our experiences and values. Memes even make it onto our protest signs.

The “mocking Spongebob” meme on a sign at a protest for gun reform. (Photo Credit: Alex Cavendish/Nur Photot, Getty Images)

With memes being as popular as they are, it’s not surprising that brands have started to use them to try to gain teenage customers. This is most often done through Twitter or Instagram. Brands, especially food brands, post as if they were human, frequently using memes, replying to comments, and even talking with other brands.

For example, Skittles recently cashed in on the “number neighbor” trend (where people text the number one higher or lower than their own), posting the following tweet:

Skittles responded to many users’ replies, and even M&M’s soon weighed in:

Through friendly conversation and memes, Skittles and M&M’s were able to get teens’ attention in a subtle, engaging manner. This isn’t as possible through traditional online advertisements, which people tend to scroll past without a second thought.

Teenagers are especially drawn to brands that aren’t just selling a product but also have a “message” behind them. For example, I follow @CalafiaFarms, a maker of non-dairy milks, on Twitter because I like their commitment to sustainability and making plant-based foods in addition to liking their products.

A few years ago, Lokai bracelets suddenly became very popular among tweens and teens. The bracelets, which contain water from Mt. Everest and mud from the Dead Sea, have supported various charities, such as Make-a-Wish, the Alzheimer’s Association, and the Breast Cancer Research Foundation. They became popular not only because of their unique style, but because they represented self-care and giving to others.

However, many of today’s brands, especially bigger ones that have been around for a while, aren’t associated with a message or cause. This could be problematic in trying to appeal to today’s teens, who are looking for individuality and social responsibility. Thus, to companies such as Skittles and M&M’s, using memes and current trends to connect with teens is an easy way to latch onto a unique identity without having to make any costly branding changes.

Sometimes this strategy works. I follow the @Vitaminwater Twitter, which posts all-lower-case, meme-infused, Emma Chamberlain-esque tweets and has 156,000 followers. Vitamin Water’s tweets strike me as being casually funny without trying too hard and are even self-aware at times:

However, not all brands are as successful. Often, their attempts to be relatable or use memes can come across as forced and unfunny. For example, @kraftcheese recently tweeted this:

Needless to say, the responses to this stale dad joke were not positive. Users’ replies included “I am not connecting with this brand” and “This tweet made me lactose intolerant.” Some also tweeted the flagship response to failed brand tweets, a picture with the words “silence, brand.”

The “silence, brand” response

But this goes beyond unfunny jokes. A lot of teenagers respond negatively to brands making memes because it is so obviously an attempt to appeal to them. And as a teen Twitter-user, I can say we see right through it. Memes and jokes are a way for us to share our ideas and relate to each other in a way only we can understand. So when a brand tries to join in, it’s often annoying and unwelcome.

In fact, there’s even a subreddit dedicated to brands’ failures to relate to us. It’s called r/fellowkids, and is named after an episode of 30 Rock in which Steve Buscemi’s character tries to disguise himself as a high schooler and approaches a group of kids with the phrase “How do you do, fellow kids?”

Not only can brands’ and other groups’ attempts to appeal to teens be unfunny, they can also be insulting. For example, in 2014 FAFSA posted the following now-deleted tweet:

Screenshot of FAFSA’s now-deleted tweet.

This tweet was received as very insensitive, especially given the fact that during the 2014–2015 school year, around the time this tweet was posted, “about two-thirds of full-time students paid for college with the help of financial aid in the form of grants and scholarships,” according to the College Board. FAFSA’s tweet, intended to help students receive financial aid, instead seemed to poke fun at them.

But the trend of brands trying to be relatable goes beyond memes. In 2017, Pepsi seemingly tried to capitalize on Millenials’ and Gen Z’s passion for social justice with a commercial starring Kendall Jenner, who leaves a photoshoot to join a passing protest. The problem is that, with signs showing peace signs and vague phrases like “join the movement,” it’s not clear what the protest is for. The commercial’s ending scene, which shows protestors cheering as Jenner hands a policeman a Pepsi, was particularly problematic to many in that it seems to imply that justice and social equality, which many groups in America have been historically denied, can be achieved by a supermodel with a can of soda. Amidst accusations of appropriating the Black Lives Matter movement, Pepsi apologized and pulled the ad. But the damage had already been done.

But Pepsi isn’t the only brand that’s been accused of capitalizing on social issues. While some companies, such as Ben and Jerry’s, have historically supported LGBTQ+ rights, as the Pride movement has become more mainstream, many have been accused of showing support only to appeal to customers. For example, according to Dawn Ennis of Forbes, many companies — such as Verizon, UPS, and Pfizer — who donned a rainbow logo during Pride 2019 have actually donated large sums of money to anti-gay candidates.

Companies have also been questioned for pandering on International Women’s Day. For example, according to Zlati Meyer of USA Today, in 2018, McDonald’s flipped its “M” to a “W” on digital materials and at one U.S. store for the day. However, many wondered how the fast-food giant was using its influence to support women beyond this gesture. An assistant professor of marketing at the New York City College of Technology, Denise Sutton said “When I see something like that, it’s nice for International Women’s Day, but what is McDonald’s doing the other days of the year? How are they promoting and appreciating women on other days?”

When it comes to appealing to teenagers, sure, memes and social justice-related posts can be nice — but they’re not enough. What we really care about is not taking a few minutes to post something on Twitter, but a continuous commitment to making some sort of positive difference in the world. We want to see that brands are using their power for good and are standing up for what’s right — not just to gain customers, but because it’s the right thing to do.

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