The term meme is one you’ve probably encountered online. Pronounced to rhyme with “cream”, the word was originally invented by Richard Dawkins in the 1970s to describe the way culture replicated itself in a way quite similar to genes. Basically, he used it to describe ideas that spread throughout a culture by being picked up by new people.
Online, the term has come to describe very particular kinds of things that spread. They can be phrases or pictures or ideas. Memes travel very quickly and can become sensations almost overnight. Popular memes are often pop culture references, but often just cat pictures. Memes often have a life of their own, evolving over time. A recent meme that exploded online was the pepper spray guy, a police officer pepper spraying students. Thanks to the meme, he was put into classic pieces of art, album covers, and on t-shirts.
Memes are very much a viral phenomenon and very hard to predict. They generally explode very quickly and are often gone just as fast, but they can have a major impact during that time. Viral marketers have tried to use them to create buzz for their products, a behavior called “memetic marketing”. Memes are cost-effective, but generally fairly silly and trivial, so not always the appropriate way to market something. Its biggest use has been in publicizing television or movies, often things that wouldn’t have otherwise been seen. You may remember the Conan meme after the debacle over The Tonight Show.
Memes can be quite fun but are difficult to stay on the cutting edge of. If you’re an advertiser, it is important to keep up with what is popular and what is over and, if you do so, it is possible to introduce a phrase or picture into the zeitgeist that will take off on its own. Just be forewarned that it will probably be changed radically if it does become popular.