Can Memes Exist Outside of the Internet? - Pacific Standard

Can Memes Exist Outside of the Internet?

A number of advertisers have tried to pull Internet Culture off the Web and put it onto your television screen.
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(Photo: YouTube)

(Photo: YouTube)

Amid the novel intersection of ideas that is the Internet, there has emerged something called Internet Culture, an ill-defined, catchall phrase used to describe all the memes, GIFs, and other viral forms of random LOL humor that a growing number of largely anonymous people create, share, and comment on online. It's a universe inhabited by the opposing forces of Scumbag Steve and Good Guy Greg. It's every single rendition of the Harlem Shake on a long list of Harlem Shake renditions. It's Nyan Cat, Grumpy Cat, and Keyboard Cat. It's, you know, everything stupid and dumb yet amusing and wonderful about the Web that ends up on Reddit, BuzzFeed, and your Facebook wall.

Thus far, however, the majority of Internet Culture has yet to stray from its medium of birth. And why would it? Not all mediums are equipped to handle all forms of expression. Radio, for example, isn't the best conduit for dance. Neither is TV for lengthy blocks of text. But as memes and GIFs continue to rise in popularity, it seems inevitable that more and more marketers, advertisers, and other media players will attempt to exploit them through a successful crossover. The question is: Does Internet Culture work offline?

Consider Fiat's new ad campaign, titled "Endless Fun." In a series of four television spots, we see images of bananas floating in outer space, men wearing horse masks, a guy twerking in a rabbit costume, the words "I CAN HAZ TURRBO?," a sloth operating a pair of turntables, and, of course, lots of compact automobiles. Each commercial consists of several shorter looped videos, which are clearly meant to mimic GIFs. Every second is accompanied by the musical track "Biggie Bounce" by Diplo.

In an interview with Advertising Age, Chrysler's Chief Marketing Officer Olivier Francois, who manages the Fiat brand in America, said the campaign was initially created for Fiat's Tumblr page—a context in which both the ads' form and content make sense. But because he liked them so much, he decided to put them on TV. "I thought they were crazy," he said. "Crazy weird. Crazy fun. Crazy cheap to produce, as well. Maybe a new culture of commercial."

Francois has called this move "an experiment," and it is. If you happen to come across one of these spots after watching two hours of television on any given night, you'll notice it's a campaign unlike anything else out there. But pioneering aside, what does the intended audience think?

"This is like your dad putting on his Asia World Tour '86 tee and taking you to Coachella," reads one top-rated comment in response to news of Fiat's latest ads. "This is the advertising equivalent of when your parents try to bump and grind at your high school dance. It's mortifying," Patrick George wrote at Jalopnik. In mid-June, someone posted one of Fiat's ads to r/cringe, a Reddit community that focuses on videos "too embarrassing to watch all the way through," where it received much ridicule. Sample comment: " HAHA SEE WE CAN MEME TOO GUYS PLEASE BUY OUR CARS SINCE WE CAN MEME."

While Fiat may have done almost everything technically correct—“almost” because the Deal With It meme involves someone putting sunglasses on, while Fiat shows someone taking sunglasses off—little about the campaign feels right. Perhaps that's because they're a company trying to sell something. Perhaps it's that some of the material they appropriated from Internet Culture is a bit dated. But perhaps it's also because the public isn't quite ready to see the Web on TV.

Fiat isn't alone in its willingness to experiment with mediums, either. Last November, Kmart released a couple of holiday-themed television commercials featuring characters who were "GIF-ing Out," meaning they were trapped in a tight GIF-like loop of excitement over their recent purchases. The spots, with audio samples that sound like a very broken record, are downright difficult to watch. Many, many people who happened to see them used Twitter to express their disapproval, annoyance, and outrage.

Other examples exist, too. One Nissan commercial shows people planking in a rather clumsy fashion. Dramatic Chipmunk shows up in a spot for CarMax. Doge appears on a billboard. In general, these types of ads don't seem to quite capture that spontaneous, interactive, freewheeling, collaborative, bottom-up spirit that makes the Internet pages where all of this stuff originates so potent. But that's because they can't.

All mediums have a bias. Each one appeals to our senses in a unique way. When Marshall McLuhan said that "the medium is the message," this is what he was getting at.

Perhaps one day in the future the Internet will swallow all other media. Nothing that we see or hear will arrive offline or without an option to share on social media. Internet Culture will become The Culture. Until then, however, memes and GIFs on any other medium might very well remain kind of awkward.

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