Memes Won the Election
Like most of you, we’ve been scratching our heads for the last few weeks wondering what the hell happened on election day, that is, how could the results have deviated so significantly from the best pollster’s predictions? The results of the 2016 presidential election will be picked over for years to come, and there’s no single factor that led to the surprising outcome, however, there was one seismic escalation of a trend that has been underway since the birth of the internet, and that’s memes. One way to think about it is that the dominant communication medium of an era defines to a degree that era’s politics. FDR’s fireside chats signaled the start of the radio era of politics. JFK’s decision to wear makeup on the first televised debate signaled the start of the TV era of politics. When President-Elect Donald Trump retweeted a Pepe the Frog meme at 2am on October 13, 2015, we officially entered the meme era of politics. The results of the election have as much to do with this change in eras as any Wikileaks emails, policy positions, or “temperament.”
Many would argue that Barack Obama was the first “internet era” candidate, although the world he got elected into just 8 years ago wasn’t nearly as saturated with online content as our current one. Although similar in many ways, when it comes to the core way in which opinions are shaped, Obama’s “internet era” and Trump’s “meme era” are quite different. The key distinction- the former’s world is still fundamentally anchored in concrete facts and information, while the latter’s world is more about gut feelings, emotion, and (arguably) a flight from concrete facts and information as fundamental to persuading an electorate. How did we go from one world to another, so quickly? In our view: smartphones, sorting algorithms, and short-form digital content (read: memes).
When Barack Obama was elected in 2008, smartphone penetration in the United States was around 22%. In 2012, it had grown to around 40%. As of 2015, 68% of Americans had a smartphone. Over three times as many Americans had near-constant access to the internet and social media during this election cycle compared to 2008. In theory, this should have meant that fact-based conversations would rule the day since fact checking websites are just a click away. Unfortunately, over the last eight years, we’ve also seen the rise of predictive algorithms on social media networks like Facebook (through which 44% of American adults now get their news).
Facebook used to have human editors for its “trending” news section, but replaced them with algorithms this summer. The results of this is fake/fabricated articles and click-bait pieces appearing on the social network’s news section on a nearly weekly basis. And that’s just the “trending” section- Facebook has been tailoring the content that appears on individual users’ newsfeeds based on their interactions on the site for some time now. For the last few months of the election, this has been our reality- there is more information online than ever before, but that information is increasingly being curtailed from us by the very channels we use to access it.
What risks undermining the democratic process is the degree to which politicians have “leaned into” this reality, rather than resisting it. Conservatives and liberals alike have grown more and more radicalized by the constant reinforcement of their handheld echo chambers, and many dismiss any information that doesn’t originate from their preferred publications as “propaganda” funded by shadowy interests on the other side of the aisle. Our social networks have effectively given us permission to only consume media that reinforces our existing beliefs (because that’s all that their algorithms think we want). These same algorithms ensure that liberal posts are only seen by liberal eyes, and conservative posts by conservative eyes. Most of the sound and fury hammered out on Facebook and Twitter in the last weeks of the election barely made it out of the party echo chambers, and did very little to win any hearts and minds that weren’t already made up.
So in this, the “post-truth” world where facts, figures and legitimate/credible information and content are either inaccessible or are willfully dismissed, how do you get through to people?
This election cycle witnessed the bleeding together of memes and reality. Case and point, one of the best memes of the cycle: “Ted Cruz is the Zodiac Killer.” (Disclaimer: Ted Cruz is *probably* not the Zodiac Killer.) When a meme accusing the Texas Senator of leading a double life as the infamous serial killer went viral this past spring, a subsequent poll found that a stunning 38% of Floridian voters either believed he was (10%) or weren’t entirely sure (28%). For those who don’t know: the majority of the Zodiac murders transpired in the late 60s and early 70s, while Cruz himself was born in 1970. And yet, in our crazy current era, all it took was a well-executed meme for 38% of Floridian voters to think otherwise.
Trump had memes at the forefront of his campaign since the primaries, exemplified by his penchant for nicknaming his rivals. To this day, Google still serves up search suggestions like “Marco Rubio height” and “Jeb Bush please clap.” No single meme can get the credit for Trump’s victory (a myriad of political, economic, social, cultural and technological factors are to blame), although his meme-savvy online fandom had something to do with it. The Trump crowd’s proclivity for making and circulating memes is so significant that Hillary Clinton’s website posted an article about one such meme, Pepe the Frog, and the meme’s (alleged) ties to white nationalism. Pepe existed for many years before being co-opted by the “Alt Right,” and the article’s accusations didn’t do Hillary many favors with millennial voters, the primary consumers of Pepe-centric content (and memes in general). Trump is an anti-establishment candidate in an anti-establishment election, and memes, for all of the digital infrastructure that needs to exist for them to be created and circulated, are an anti-establishment medium. Trump’s camp was more all-in on memes than Hillary’s (and we’d contend that while Hillary did win the youth vote, her campaign’s memes didn’t have the same degree of “authenticity,” a crucial aspect of Trump’s election brand). The online meme community (which is not a monolith, but is generally made up of people with an appreciation for absurdist humor) reacted very positively to the initial, still-comical notion of a Trump Presidency last year, and Trump’s campaign rode that energy all the way to the White House.
This might all be dismissible as conjecture, were it not for the real numbers of the campaign. Donald Trump got more than $4.6 billion in earned media compared to Hillary’s $2.5 billion. Trump never stopped talking through the entire election cycle, and many of his most controversial campaign moments became memes in their own right. Trump enjoyed more earned media coverage than any previous candidate, and spent less than half of what Clinton did. According to the FEC, Trump has about $254 million in campaign receipts compared to Hillary’s $514 million. We’d also be amiss if we didn’t mention slogans. Hillary had 3. Donald had 1.
So what does this new era mean for marketing communications? Does our industry adopt memes as a medium of paid communication as we did radio and TV a few decades ago? What are the ethics of doing so? Americans have a lot of questions after the election. Marketers should too.