Meme marketing can be funny, edgy and wacky; but there’s a thin line between funny and offensive that no good marketer wants to cross. You want to connect with your audience without running the risk of offending someone. In a world that places emphasis on all things politically correct, this can sometimes be a bit challenging. But a negative fallout can be even more damaging.
This is also where meme marketing differs from generic memes. To the millennials who initially drove the meme culture which the Gen Z proudly took over, memes were the best way to express their opinions about any situation. This included memeing on subjects that would otherwise be considered too sensitive, such as 9/11, and the assassination of Iranian general Qasem Soleimani that brought forth memes on World War III. Memes often employ humour to deal with a situation, including tragedies; some are satirical in nature, taking potshots at cultural and political idols. Although this is not always negative or harmful, they can sometimes cross a line. Can meme marketing take the same risk?
The answer is a resounding no. When it comes to using memes in marketing, it is best to stick to the safe and narrow. While an individual can comment and push the boundaries of what is completely kosher, a marketer cannot. This is where the differing motivations of an individual and a marketer come into play. When an individual is making a meme, he/she is not bothered by its ‘market’. For a marketer, this nonchalance cannot apply. While one may have a target audience in mind, the difference here is that a marketer will not want to offend people falling outside their intended demographic. In fact, even the target audience may take offence to a meme that does not address them directly.
Getting it right
So, how do we keep the balance between funny and offensive? The first step, like any other marketing campaign, is to understand the target audience and what would cause an instant connection with them. For instance, the show Mirzapur on Amazon Prime Video used the meme ‘IAS-YAS bano’ to echo the typical expectations held by Indian parents. It’s a theme that is funny without getting offensive. It triggers recognition in almost all generations, and while it may seem to criticise the parent, it also echoes with that generation because of familiar parental expectations!
There are some areas that should be avoided by meme marketing. Religion, racism and sexism are themes that can easily trigger people. There are some issues which should be handled with care, such as memes with political or cultural icons as the theme. Certain themes in politics are universal, but criticism or favour towards any one party will invite backlash from the other side. One could meme about the long-drawn-out counting process of the recently concluded US elections. However, memes that endorsed either Republicans or Democrats were best avoided, no matter what one’s inclination or even the popular sentiment. The same applies to any Indian poll. Using inappropriate pictures or text can also backfire. For instance, everyone loves kids’ pictures. But they would be unsuitable for brands like a nightclub. Similarly, one should avoid using pictures that are triggering, such as any depiction of abuse or any kind of violence, however mild it may seem.
In conclusion, marketing memes work best when they are funny. They can be dark, ironic or satirical. But they should never be offensive, taking potshots at any one section of the society, even if it is outside the core target demographic.
The author is MD and co-founder, Meme Chat