meme controversy

Marketing with Memes, Part 03: Memes Gone Wrong

In the first and second pieces of this series, we’ve discussed proper incorporation of memes into your content marketing strategy can help you connect with a younger demographic. But how should you handle possible controversy when it comes to this modern meme tactic?

Answer: do your homework. You should always research any meme you want to use—before sharing it on your social media accounts or through other platforms.

Why? Sometimes – especially in this age of intense political controversy – what looks like a simple image can represent something much darker.

The most recent of these instances involves the Pepe the Frog cartoon. Maybe you’ve heard of it (and maybe not, that’s okay)—but do you know where it started? Why is a frog so controversial? Here are a few tips and tricks that’ll help you avoid accidental online controversy of your own that could harm your business.


The Origin of Pepe the Frog


The famous (and infamous) Pepe

Pepe the Frog, as a meme, began quite innocently. He first appeared in a 2006 comic series known as “Boy’s Club.” His original image was a green frog’s face, resting above a short caption: “feels good, man.”

Soon, variations of the original macro image (now known as “rare Pepes”) began surfacing across all corners of the internet. An easily drawn character, Pepe began appearing on Reddit and Tumblr threads in all manner of variations—usually referred to as the “sad frog meme,” but sometimes as an angry or surprised frog and even as a pop-culture reference.


Public Response and Use

The original version of the Pepe meme was (and remains) fairly innocuous. However, the meme quickly made its way onto channels like 4chan and 8chan—platforms that, in the past, have been known to cultivate a somewhat racist user base. Users on these platforms were quick to utilize the Pepe meme to push racist, anti-Semitic and bigoted ideas.

Cue the rise of the “alt-right” movement in the United States. The group essentially hijacked the Pepe meme to spread its own agenda—marketing at its worst, as it were. Pepe, once nothing more than the work of a cartoonist, rapidly became known as a symbol of hatred. So much so, in fact, that it was classified as a hate symbol by the Anti-Defamation League.



Tips for Avoiding Meme Controversy

What’s the lesson here? Always do your research.

Remember that the internet is a rapidly-changing animal. Memes that might appear innocent and casual can have alternate meanings with subgroups and other platforms that might make them completely unsuitable for your usage and could easily damage your business.

If you intend to use memes in your marketing campaigns, you need to do your research. Be careful that you don’t affiliate your business with a meme such as Pepe. Even once-silly internet memes can carry damaging stigma.

Other tips for avoiding meme controversy include:


  • Punch up, not down: Humor is at its most effective when it targets people in power as opposed to minority groups. If you intend to use a meme in your marketing campaign, make sure that it doesn’t target one group over another.
  • Remain socially aware: Watch the news and stay alert for signs of unrest within your consumer audience. If you don’t, you may end up producing meme-based content that resembles Pepsi’s late Kendall Jenner commercial, where a desire to keep up with social trends resulted in a serious business blunder.
  • Prevent misinterpretation: Finally, ask yourself ahead of time whether the meme can be misconstrued. While not all consumers are literary theorists, they can pick up on basic advertising strategies and themes. Use test groups and peers in your industry to ensure that your meme usage makes contextual sense and isn’t appearing at a tense time.

You wouldn’t expect the usage of memes in marketing campaigns to be such dangerous territory. In this age, however, you need to be careful with the things you post.



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Image attribution: Wayhome Studio and KnowYourMeme –