Is the Meme Stealing Our Identity?

By Luc Benyon, Content and Creative Manager, D&AD

In February last year I took a mini break to Morocco. My girlfriend and I were in a lantern-lit souk, haggling over rugs. We whittled our choices down to three or four and entered into our well-rehearsed disagreeing-couple-haggle-routine. The rug-seller pointed out that the blue and black rug was better value. I immediately smiled, looked at him and said - but I thought it was white and gold!

Oh how we laughed.

An internet viral, about a dress, which had not existed 24 hours before, was already the source of great amusement deep in the souks of Marrakesh. My Facebook feed and this man’s were in-synch. Culture had shrunk, the world had shrunk. Points of reference were shared.

How? Social media.

I use the term ‘media’ tentatively. Because in fact the medium in discussion was just Facebook. Just one platform, used globally, had enabled me and this man to giggle over the colour of a rug.

Globally shared cultural events used to be few and far between. I would look forward to the Olympics for months, carefully compiling my wall charts, plotting my viewing schedule and predicting winners. There was a huge buzz about it. And when it was televised you could feel the energy, you could connect with people around the world, and it was magical.

In just ten years the frequency of these kind of cross-cultural, universally understood points of reference has exploded. They happen on a weekly basis.

Last week a penguin from Brazil called Din Din was the center of the world’s attention, and last year a photo of a boy on a beach in Turkey… There’s no predicting these moments, and there’s no point trying to replicate or force them. The brands that have tried to do this have invariably failed.

But, for advertisers and marketers there is a route to success here. A few agencies have taken this phenomenon and told is as a genesis story. Two brilliant examples exist in Try/Apt’s ‘The Silver Hand’ and Cheil UK’s ‘The Dolphin Whisperer’.

The Silver Hand came first, quietly playing on Scandinavian screens before causing a buzz at award shows. It shows how missing a TV show can lead to a depressing life. It’s funny, deadpan and executed brilliantly. ‘Water-cooler moments’ are nothing new of course, but now they are instantaneous. We have the added perils of spoilers on social media, enhanced by the fact that access to media is universal.

Similar in the story it tells, The Dolphin Whisperer demonstrates how technology enables this rapid fire sharing. So a moment on the beach becomes a worldwide ‘cultural moment’ – in this case enabled by Samsung technology. The protagonist is rocketed to Internet fame.

Rather than create their own global moment, both of these campaigns show the impact that shared experiences can have on daily life.

But for brands who want to create their own ‘moments’, there are fewer successes. Social media, after a decade, is unpredictable, volatile and untameable.

As we speak there are still strong, unique cultural nuances in every corner of the world. These are delicate, they rely on storytelling, on passed-on knowledge. Moroccan street vendors know this, they put on a mock Jamie Oliver voice as English customer walks past. And it works.

Our cultural identity is forged through shared experience; culturally specific discourses such as language, myth, history, music and theatre. Our nation, region or culture-specific stories are going to find a hard time competing against virality, as the meme becomes a shared experience.

The power is there now for images, videos, stories to spread from anywhere to everywhere. Gangnam Style. Left Shark. Russian dashboard cams. Now that storytelling happens on a global stage, we should expect our micro-cultures to take them and absorb them in our own way.

It doesn’t mean that our own identities will be eroded, but they will absorb more influence from around the world. And it offers untold opportunities for brands to tell new kinds of stories.

We’ve got to get used to the world being culturally flattened. Whether that’s a good thing I can’t say. But in any case, I did myself 1000 Dirhams on a rug  - all thanks to a white and gold dress.

Luc Benyon is Content and Creative Manager at design and advertising awards and education organization D&AD. He has a Masters Degree in Political Communications, and currently lives in Switzerland.