Social media is synonymous with public relations, and one of the leading currencies of that protean landscape is memes. Memes can buttress a campaign, do the heavy lifting of spreading awareness, but also overwhelm a communication and minimize its impact. If you’ve had your eyes turned toward social media in the last few weeks, you might have noticed the inexplicable emergence of a popular meme centering around the box office bomb, Morbius. It started, apparently, with a single social media post:

This tweet was the genesis of a shockingly viral joke, one that was so pervasive, it actually convinced the studio to put the film back into theaters. Morbius initially only made about $75 million domestically, not a total failure, but far under what the studio had wanted. Hoping to capitalize on the sudden popularity, and make some of their money back, Sony took Morbius off the shelf and back into over 1,000 theaters. And why wouldn’t they? Mentions were up, with Google trends showing the term exceeding the popularity it had in the weeks before the initial release. And for their effort, Sony made a whopping $85,000, or about $82 per theater. Or to put it another way, less than a generous maximum of 10 people in each.

In retrospect, we must ask ourselves, what was Sony thinking? We must assume that they made a typical and often repeated mistake: the assumption that numbers online translate to numbers of sales. This is not only objectively false, it can be dangerous. Yet, we see it again and again. Remember the Area 51 raid? There were over two million RSVP’s online from people confirming they were going, but a paltry 150 actually showed up at the gates, less than a percent of a percent. It’s because online, the effort required to jump on a bandwagon and engage with a trending communication is effectively nil. 

Going back to Morbius, when people defended the film online, it was with sarcasm and irony. When they championed the character appearing in further Marvel films, it was with a mocking sneer. Sony must’ve known it wasn’t all legitimate, because how could it be? But they underestimated how much of it was just a game to people. Unlike Sony, Morbius star Jared Leto capitalized on the meme by making a joke, tweeting out a video where he’s reading a script for Morbius 2: It’s Morbin’ Time. It showed he was in on the joke, that he appreciated the attention even if it was poking fun at him. That’s the way to engage with a meme. Approach it with humility, add to the fun, and let the internet do what it wants, and eventually the jokes will peter out. If you try to fight it, the online community will respond.

In 2016, there was a popular meme based around a single image of a clenched fist taken from the children’s cartoon Arthur. It was heavily trafficked and modified to fit countless situations. Some of those versions got a little racy, and the studio that made Arthur, WGBH, expressed their displeasure. Of course, all this did was encourage people to make even more content around not only the image of Arthur’s clenched fist, but of every character in the show. The amount of memes based on Arthur exploded, and what could have been a blip on the radar for the long legacy of an award-winning educational program instead became a protracted offense, one that persists to this day on the fumes of the internet’s vitriolic reaction to being told what not to do.

Let’s examine this from the perspective of communication measurement pioneer K.D. Paine. In her book Measure What Matters, she lays out how to effectively measure engagement, with level 1 being searchers, level 2 being lurkers, and so on, ending at level 5 with users defending and advocating the brand. However, just because something has apparently reached level 5, does not mean that the users you’ve reached with your message possess a crucial aspect: sincerity.

Sincerity is an aspect of audience engagement not often discussed, but that is critical to real success. The numbers may work for Sony’s marketing department in terms of measuring impressions and online chatter, but I suspect their accounting department is less enthused. Many marketers would be overjoyed just to get the numbers they’re aiming for. But if your message is not being taken seriously, but instead being interpreted ironically, you are not a success. In fact, the only thing you are is what your message has become: a joke.


Author: Benjamin George