The Power of the Meme

April 17, 2017 Ophelie Zalcmanis-Lai

Last week, United Airlines made the news after forcibly removing a passenger from a flight.

According to The Toronto Star, Dr. David Dao, the passenger, suffered a concussion, broken nose and lost teeth after airport officers pulled him from his seat and literally dragged him off the plane.

Just about the entire Internet was outraged about several things that had happened that week. People were still reeling from Pepsi’s disastrous commercial and Sean Spicer’s comments about chemical weapons and Hitler.

Putting it mildly, emotions and thoughts were running high – especially in the socialsphere.

When it comes to crises like this, it looks like brands have more to worry about than some strongly-worded tweets.

In fact, we’ve been spending our minutes looking at all the memes to come out of these incidents.  

This is what captured our minutes this week.

Here’s why:

1. Our brains react strongly to visual information.

Let’s start with brain basics. Very simply, the visual cortex processes images from identification to context. Fast Company looked at the research that makes our world so visual. For example:

-3M said our brains process visuals 60,000 times faster than text.
-The Social Science Research Network found that 65% of people are visual learners.

Basically, our brains like visual information. It’s easy for us to process. Thus, images get good reactions out of us and we want to share them with others knowing we too can also illicit further reactions.

Since we understand and react to images so strongly, it means that emotions can play a bigger role. Plain text just doesn’t get people going as easily.

In the case of United Airlines, this means that they’re likely to face a stronger backlash now that people are creating all these memes as opposed to just reading a news report on it.

2. Meme generation shows people cared enough to take the time to create something.

To clarify, we are not saying that meme generation is an art form nor are we saying it’s particularly time consuming.

But that said, people vote with their time. Brands don’t just need people to buy, they need people to pay attention.

So, for several thousand* (*complete approximation, but knowing how fast Twitter moves, probably an accurate number) people to take a few minutes out of their day to think of a clever line and drop it into a meme generator shows that people care. When people care, they’re less likely to drop a certain discussion. 

In 2017, it's pretty safe to say that if a brand has pissed people off to the point where they trade angry tweets for actual meme generation then that brand has messed up in a profound way.

As silly as it sounds, a meme is not just some silly spoof photo. Rather, a meme represents extra effort taken by audiences to demonstrate outrage. 

Time is currency. 

3. As the memes continue to be created and shared, the slow burn begins for United’s brand identity.

How often are memes used for something truly positive? Digital Trends listed the top 10 most popular memes of all time. If you look at all of them and make a quick association as to the language that usually follows them, it’s almost always heavy sarcasm or criticism. Yes, even success kid.

It’s death by paper cuts. Or at least, maiming by paper cuts.

United Airlines is now facing ongoing ridicule that has no end simply because it’s super easy to sustain the negativity. Will it ultimately prevent people from booking with United? Maybe not. But it does make an association that will be hard to break.

The result? Damaged brand value. Being associated with such a brutal event that displayed a clear lack of care for customers will put a bad taste in customers’ mouths. The Internet will probably be onto the next scandal by tomorrow, but pull up one of these United memes and it’ll be fresh all over again.

We doubt we need to explain the pain of damaged brand value. Those words should be scary enough.

For United Airlines, the damage has been done. The significance with this particular time is that the damage is now eternalized in the ever-relatable meme.

At the end of the day, people engage with content by lending their minutes. Content is successful when its battery is fully charged with attention.

What will win this week?

BONUS: Want more proof that memes spread like wildfire? Check out this super fan from Game 2 between the Maple Leafs and Washington. Already a Canadian treasure. 

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