Assessment 3 · Social Media Communication

POPULARITY vs. RELEVANCE: THE POWER OF AN “IMITATED THING”

SOCIAL MEDIA COMMUNICATION
Assessment 3 – Online Article
Eloise Lennen-Rodriguez (SID: 460443777)
Instructor: Cherry Baylosis, Thursday 6-9PM
Word Count: 1,462

Have you ever seen an ad that tugged at your heartstrings? That made you angry or happy or sad? That made you think and feel? If yes, try to remember the reason it might’ve made you have that reaction. It’s likely due to an experience you had, or that it touches upon something you have a personal involvement in, something you’re passionate about. Though our experiences are unique, there is a commonality that unites them (and us) all: the emotions they generate. Now, you’re probably wondering why I’m asking you about this. As an undergraduate student, my degree focused on strategic design and business management which, simply put, taught me the role design played in a business’ success within creative industries like advertising. This led me to take special interest in the way brands market themselves to the public; analyzing them more critically, trying to understand why consumers make the choices they do daily. Especially now, in the age of the internet, things are moving fast and it’s becoming increasingly important for brands to create significant relationships with their audience to convert them into customers. So, how did they manage to stay relevant?

men_16.jpg
IMAGE 1 – “Marlboro Man” print ad (source: Middlebury College)

If you think of it, an easy way companies have found to foster relationships is to build upon already existing ones. Nowadays this can be quite easy due to the prevalence of algorithms which track your every online move allowing them to anticipate your likes, needs and wants. Yet, using trends as a marketing tool to sell products is not a proprietary formula unique to the post-internet era. In the 1950s, Marlboro called upon the universal appeal of an all-American cowboy to mold the symbol of their ‘Marlboro Man’ persona and make smoking cool (“The Marlboro Man”). In the 1980s, arguably one of the most iconic television commercials ever aired was Apple’s ‘1984’ ad produced for the Super Bowl that same year. After failing miserable during market research testing (and ignoring the results), Apple allegedly garnered around $US150 million worth of free advertising from the minute-long clip that didn’t even show its product (Taube). Its strength? Playing on George Orwell’s classic novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, originally published in 1949. In a Forbes article discussing the ad’s commercial triumph with industry experts, Bart Cleveland, then creative director at McKee Wallwork & Cleveland, explained:

“It speaks to people intelligently by not saying too much. It doesn’t try too hard to be amazing. It is truth. It took the truth that Orwell shared decades earlier and applied it to our future. Our freedom. In 60 seconds it made you root for the underdog, which you realize is you. (Smith)

Here, Cleveland reflects on what he saw as Apple’s success in their approach; taking something familiar from the past and using it to make a point relevant to the audience’s future. It became personal, relatable, attainable.

VIDEO 1 – ‘1984’ Apple’s Macintosh Commercial (source: YouTube)

 Today, with the advent of social media, there is a cornucopia of content readily available to brands, online. They focus on what has amassed viewership and, more importantly, engagement, using analytics to support its value. Whether it’s a phrase, image, hashtag, gif or video, this content’s purpose derives from being distributed and altered by those sharing it. This concept should sound familiar to you because Richard Dawkins, an author and academic specialized in evolutionary biology, unintentionally defined this phenomenon before it was adopted by the web-browsing masses who now know it simply as a ‘meme’.

In 2013, a piece called ‘Just for Hits’ was developed by advertising agency Saatchi & Saatchi featuring Dawkins performing a monologue explaining what a ‘meme’ is; a term he had originally coined in his 1976 bestseller, The Selfish Gene (Hinton and Hjorth, p484). During the performance Dawkins reveals how, in his work, he compared memes to genes depicting them as “viruses of the mind” which spread through culture similarly to the way genes spread through the gene pool. Both having the capability of withstanding the test of time due to their capacity for being shared (Saatchi & Saatchi). The piece becomes most relevant when Dawkins goes on to explain the evolution of the ‘internet meme’ specifically, as these weren’t around when he first developed the terminology:

“[…] the very idea of the meme has itself mutated and evolved in a new direction: an ‘internet meme’ is a hijacking of the original idea. Instead of mutating by random chance before spreading by form of Darwinian selection, internet memes are altered deliberately by human creativity. In the hijacked version, mutations are designed not random, with the full knowledge of the person doing the mutating.” (Saatchi & Saatchi).

Here Dawkins expands on the idea that the key characteristic of memes, including internet ones, is their aptitude to spread through human culture “infecting” it. In addition to this, internet memes also possess the particularity of having been given a creative reinterpretation by users who engage with them (Saatchi & Saatchi).

Frequency with which social networking users share content as of June 2014.png
TABLE 1 – Frequency with which social networking users share content as of June 2014  (source: Statista)
Distribution of global social content sharing activities as of 2nd quarter 2016, by social network.png
TABLE 2 – Distribution of global social content sharing activities as of 2nd quarter 2016, by social network (source: Statista)
Number of monthly active Facebook users worldwide as of 4th quarter 2016 (in millions).png
TABLE 3 – Number of monthly active Facebook users worldwide as of 4th quarter 2016 (in millions) (source: Statista)

To better understand the practice of online content sharing, we can look at data compiled by Statista which found that 59% of SNS users said they shared content at least half the time or more (TABLE 1). Additionally, Statista found Facebook led as the platform of choice with 57% of content sharing activity happening on the social network behemoth followed by Twitter with just 18% hosted there (TABLE 2). These stats aren’t that surprising when looking at the steady rise of monthly active Facebook users which went from 100 million in 2008 to 1.86 billion by the end of 2016 (TABLE 3). As the preferred SNS site globally, it makes sense for it to be the platform where this engagement is concentrated. Yet, it’s important to also look past the significance of these numbers in the present day; what we can also take away from these statistics is how significantly online communication has transformed in a relatively short time. The World Wide Web is still quite a young technology that was introduced to the public less than 30 years ago, in the early 1990s (Hinton and Hjorth, p8). Many entrepreneurs saw the web’s potential as a space of boundless connectivity and, therefore, its chances of becoming a goldmine, quickly making it the latest frontier businesses aimed to conquer and capitalize on. However, even with that foresight, many failed to understand the organic purpose of the web. As Hinton & Hjorth point out in Understanding Social Media: “[…] there was an underlying lack of interest in actually attempting to understand how people were using the internet, and how this affected business models that were still treating internet users like TV audiences” (Hinton and Hjorth, p13).

This very one-dimensional understanding of an infinitely more complex space stemmed from the complacency of companies’ strategic approach towards this new platform and was ultimately their undoing (Hinton and Hjorth, p15). That version of the web, retrospectively dubbed ‘Web 1.0’, was made static and constricted by the traditional business models applied to it. The dotcom crash of the early 2000s was definitive proof of its unsustainable nature (Hinton and Hjorth, p15). Still, the fall of Web 1.0 was not the end of the web altogether ultimately leading to the rise of Web 2.0; its coming of age as a space “[…] more concerned with providing users with the means for producing and distributing content” (Hinton and Hjorth, p18). This web revolution allowed users to contribute to what they were experiencing online, forcing businesses to stop approaching it from the top down and admit to a redistribution of power.

VIDEO 2 – FULL PEPSI ‘LIVE NOW’ COMMERCIAL (source: YouTube)

 However, this power shift cannot be considered a complete democratization of the web. As an article from Ad Age pointed out: “if content is king, its metadata is heir to the throne” and owning that metadata is the key to “measure, monetize, and create long-term engagement opportunities with customers” (Hunegnaw). This logic has influenced companies to turn to memes as the barometer of existing cultural trends, to inspire the campaigns which they produce; the ideal outcome being a something that becomes part of the zeitgeist. But, regardless of the popularity of a certain movement online, this is not always a guarantee. The grassroots nature of internet memes accurately demonstrates the two primary characteristics of Web 2.0 as they incorporate User Generated Content (UGC) where users simply share content made by others, as well as User Created Content (UCC), where content is made by users (Hinton and Hjorth, p17); UCC being particularly impactful as it highlights how “[…] in networked communication environments the audience are no longer simply consumers of the media: they have become participants.” (Hinton and Hjorth, p17). A failure to understand memes as more than a thoughtless act of participation is an important part of strategic planning that businesses cannot overlook, regardless of metadata. Pepsi is a recent example of a brand suffering backlash after airing a TV ad featuring Kendall Jenner misappropriating protest culture (Wong). Their tone-deaf approach to millennial political engagement missing the mark and further underlining the importance of understanding memes’ value as content shared and customized without forgetting their purpose as an embodiment of current cultural capital.

Comparison of Pepsi’s ‘Live Now’ TV ad to a photo taken of Ieshia Evans during a Black Lives Matter protest in Louisiana1208525.jpgIMAGE 2 (source: Dazed)

REFERENCES

Cafolla, Anna. “Pepsi’S Protest-Themed Ad With Kendall Jenner Faces Backlash”. Dazeddigital.com. N.p., 2017. Web. 26 Apr. 2017.

Hinton, Sam, and Larissa Hjorth. Understanding Social Media. 1st ed. Los Angeles, CA [etc.]: SAGE, 2013. Print.

Hunegnaw, David. “The Future Of User-Generated Content Is Owned”. Adage.com. N.p., 2017. Web. 26 Apr. 2017.

Saatchi & Saatchi. Just For Hits – Richard Dawkins. 2013. Web. 26 Apr. 2017.

Smith, Jacquelyn. “Experts And Viewers Agree: Apple’s ‘1984’ Is The Best Super Bowl Ad Of All Time”. Forbes.com. N.p., 2012. Web. 26 Apr. 2017.

Solon, Olivia. “Richard Dawkins On The Internet’s Hijacking Of The Word ‘Meme'”. Wired.co.uk. N.p., 2013. Web. 26 Apr. 2017

Taube, Aaron. “Apple Changed Super Bowl Advertising Forever 30 Years Ago Today, But Its ‘1984’ Ad Almost Didn’t Make It On The Air”. Businessinsider.com.au. N.p., 2014. Web. 26 Apr. 2017.

“The Marlboro Man”. Adage.com. N.p., 1999. Web. 26 Apr. 2017.

IMAGE 1: Silcoff, Matt. “Marlboro Man | The Evolution Of Cigarette Advertising”. Sites.middlebury.edu. N.p., 2015. Web. 26 Apr. 2017. (link: http://sites.middlebury.edu/smokingkills/men_16/)

IMAGE 2: Wong, Julia. “Pepsi Pulls Kendall Jenner Ad Ridiculed For Co-Opting Protest Movements”. Theguardian.com. N.p., 2017. Web. 26 Apr. 2017. (link: http://www.dazeddigital.com/artsandculture/article/35491/1/pepsi-s-protest-themed-ad-with-kendall-jenner-faces-backlash)

TABLE 1: “Frequency With Which Social Networking Users Share Content As Of June 2014”. Statista.com. Web. 26 Apr. 2017. (link: https://www.statista.com/statistics/276821/content-sharing-frequency-by-region/)

TABLE 2: “Most Famous Social Network Sites Worldwide As Of April 2017, Ranked By Number Of Active Users (In Millions)”. Statista.com. Web. 26 Apr. 2017. (link: https://www.statista.com/statistics/272014/global-social-networks-ranked-by-number-of-users/)

TABLE 3: “Number Of Monthly Active Facebook Users Worldwide As Of 4Th Quarter 2016 (In Millions)”. Statista.com. Web. 26 Apr. 2017. (link: https://www.statista.com/statistics/264810/number-of-monthly-active-facebook-users-worldwide/)

VIDEO 1: YouTube. 1984 Apple’s Macintosh Commercial. 2012. Web. 26 Apr. 2017. (link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VtvjbmoDx-I)

VIDEO 2: YouTube. Kendall Jenner for PEPSI Commercial. 2017. Web. 26 Apr. 2017. (link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VtvjbmoDx-I)

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