Meme Wars

Michael Bloomberg is apparently spending a bunch of money on the development and deployment of memes.

A meme could, potentially, neatly encapsulate and summarize a real, meaningful argument.  Or it could have the appearance of offering a conclusive argument when no such argument has actually been made.  Or it could be so ridiculous that it has no effect–or an opposite effect from that intended–on its target audience.

William “Boss” Tweed was very upset by the cartoon of Thomas Nast, because, as he famously said:  “I don’t care a straw for your newspaper articles; my constituents don’t know how to read, but they can’t help seeing them damned pictures.”  Perhaps in our own era, there are plenty of people who do know how to read–who may well be college graduates–but whose attention spans are so limited, and who have so little exposure to logical discussion, that memes are the most effective way to reach them.

Discussion question:  What memes have you seen that (a) effectively make a valid argument, (b) look like they are making an effective argument, but are actually doing no such thing, or (c) are so silly that they could convince basically nobody at all?

27 thoughts on “Meme Wars”

  1. I think Bloomberg is going to find out that he’s wasted millions of dollars for no observable result, when it gets down to it.

    Memes, as the term has come to be known, aren’t reality. They’re like modern political cartoons, somewhat effective, but in reality, no more than a reflection of what people already believe. They might somewhat reinforce someone’s ability to articulate what they already believe, but I don’t think they’re going to change the mind of any but the least cognizant.

    It’s just like advertising, TBH. How many of us are really swayed by any of it, these days? Sure, the polls and the marketers proffer all sorts of evidence that it all works, but in real terms? Who sees an ad for Irish Spring soap, and then buys it because of the ad? They might try it, but unless it offers lasting value, soap bar number two, three, and four aren’t getting purchased unless the actual product meets a need in a satisfactory manner.

    Frankly, the most ads do for me and most people I know would be to make me aware of a product. They don’t convince me to buy, unless there’s a value highlighted, and if that value doesn’t actually exist, further purchase ain’t happening.

    This is not a set of facts that advertising executives want to admit to, but it is factual. There are fewer and fewer people who are vulnerable to these things, from what I can see from where I sit, and if the people paying for advertising (to included political ads…) knew the actual result that they’re getting in people’s heads? LOL… Yeah, there would be a bunch of out-of-work advertising agencies.

    Whole thing is an illustration of an invented market, one where the real need being satisfied is in the heads of the people paying for it. Most people may try a product out, but unless that product actually meets a need, they’re not buying it again, no matter how much advertising they see. If anything, the advertising may actually reinforce an aversion to buying that product again–I can think of several family members and acquaintances who froth at the mouth, every time they see a Ford advertisement on TV. All it does is serve to remind them and reinforce their disappointment in the lack of performance and general lousy experience they had with Ford in the past.

    I think Bloomberg is going to go down in history as the biggest failure of “money buys an election”, even bigger than Hillary. Trump now has a track record to run on, and it’s actually pretty decent. All he has to do is highlight it, and Bloomberg is going to have a very hard time refuting it, especially once he manages the nomination, which ain’t likely to happen.

    Frankly, I see the Democrats crashing and burning this year, and in an enormous way. The Sanders wing of the party scares the hell out of the rest, the Biden wing ain’t happening, and if Bloomberg thinks he’s just going to buy his way to the nomination and then manage to eke out a victory? LOL… Sanders and AOC supporters are going to cut his throat–I lay you long odds that they’ll turn Antifa on his ass in a heartbeat, because he’s a former Republican that turned Democrat out of convenience, and they’re going to excoriate him for being a billionaire buying his way to the Presidency. You can do that in the Republican Party, as Trump has proven, but for someone calling themselves a Democrat? I don’t see that happening. At. All.

  2. I am certain that Kirk has a point – there is less and less to be gotten from spending on things like paid adds. I get political mailers all the time; someone obviously spent a bomb to print them on glossy, heavy paper, and to mail them out … and where do they go? Into the recycle bin. I hardly ever glance at them.
    I honestly wonder if the various political campaigns are still doing mailers because it’s what they have always done… never mind if they aren’t really reaching anyone significantly any more. A money sink, just like paid political ads on TV.

  3. I think we’re about one small boy pointing out the essential nudity of the Emperor from a general collapse of a lot of things in our current milieu.

    The really funny thing about it is that all these “experts” are basically talking to themselves, convincing each other that they really, truly matter–While the reality is that they’re mostly and entirely unknowingly irrelevant.

    Sarah Hoyt discusses the publishing world in these terms a lot–And, I think you can extend that out to entire swathes of the current “elite culture”. They’ve declared themselves the elite, but they can’t sell it to the rest of us, who mostly look at them as a bunch of nutters dangerously off their meds.

    It’s exactly like publishing–They’ve ignored the market for so long, and basically failed to meet the interests or needs of the actual customers that they simply don’t even grasp that they aren’t actually doing anything that anyone wants to buy.

    Same-same with the rest of it all–You see it in the news media, you see it in movies. Nobody pays to go watch war movies where the essential message is “America bad, soldiers worse…”, nor do they want to be lectured at and hectored by people who can’t even keep their own hands off the hired help.

    They’ve killed their own market, most of them–The local newsrag is slowly going bankrupt, and what’s done it is that they’re a very liberal newspaper in a fairly conservative region, while most of their local reporting isn’t all that accurate. You can’t really rely on anything they tell you. So, why buy the paper? I think most of their sales are to people who just buy the paper out of habit, and when that generation is gone, what then? They’ve done nothing to capture the younger generations, nor are they really providing a value-added service. All that’s printed comes off the AP wire, or it’s a rehash of some local outfit’s press releases. What’s the point?

    Most of what we’re seeing around us today is the result of people looking at all this, and recognizing that these “elites” have little or no value to add to anything, and as a result, they’re getting slaughtered in the marketplace. There’s a need to be met, in terms of local news, but nobody is doing it. The void is getting filled by what amounts to modernized over-the-back-yard-fence gossip on Fakebuch.

    Frankly, what annoys the hell out of me is the utter lack of real local news–Say we have a really horrible traffic accident locally, and I want to find out what is going on. With today’s tech, I ought to be able to find out in real time what happened and what it’s doing to the traffic here in town. Reality? No ‘effing way–You have to go look for yourself, if you want to find out what the sheriff’s deputies were responding to up the canyon. It might make the blotter report in a week or two, but you can’t find out in a timely manner what happened or if it will affect you.

    It’s bizarre to contemplate, but it is a sad reality that we were better informed back in the pre-Internet days than we are now–At least, from any sort of “official source”. Now, mostly, it’s all gossip and rumor. Don’t even get me started on what happened when a little girl got run over awhile back–The only information available for a week or more was on Fakebuch, and while that was somewhat accurate, it was also full of unverified innuendo.

    There is a whole sector of the culture that’s undergoing a chaotic reorganization at the moment, and I wouldn’t bet anything on where it’s going to wind up going. I think we’re about to see what happens when an elite tries lying in the face of reality in China, and we’re not too far behind them over here. In China, it’s going to be the COVID-19 debacle, and here it’s going to be the lies told by the establishment elites in DC, when all the chickens come home to roost.

    Things break the wrong way, and Democrats are going to be unelectable on a national level for the next few generations. I suspect that the part itself is going to fractionate, and we’re going to wind up with a fringe extremist party out there in la-la land, while the common-sense types are going to wind up in the center with that other former Democrat, Donald Trump.

    Who, irony of ironies, would actually be fairly close to JFK in actual real political-spectrum terms. Makes you wonder–Why are all the recent Republican “really popular” presidents all lapsed Democrats…? Reagan, Trump…

  4. True, there is a lot of wasted advertising, but there is also advertising that actually worked. If it weren’t for national television advertising, would Procter and Gamble have been able to achieve anything like its actual market position? Of how about the Apple “1984” ad for the Mac?….sent a message that computing could be Cool, while positioning IBM as both non-Cool and as Orwellian.

  5. As the saying goes, the left can’t meme. Because they have no sense of humor, because they command the cultural heights and can’t bear to be mocked. Self righteousness, “that’s not funny” nonsense is the antithesis of the $h!tposting humor that a certain strain of Trump supporters are so good at. There’s nothing even remotely rebellious or countercultural about supporting Nanny Bloomberg. Him doing this is as pathetic and doomed to failure as when Rubio tried to trash talk Trump late in the 2016 campaign.

  6. “True, there is a lot of wasted advertising, but there is also advertising that actually worked. If it weren’t for national television advertising, would Procter and Gamble have been able to achieve anything like its actual market position? Of how about the Apple “1984” ad for the Mac?….sent a message that computing could be Cool, while positioning IBM as both non-Cool and as Orwellian.”

    You believed any of that BS? Seriously?

    Here’s the thing: The number of “susceptibles” in any given population goes down as the BS goes up–At this point, having had personal experience of Apple products and the mindset of the company behind them, all I do is laugh my ass off at the essential fraud that that infamous “1984” ad pulled off. The only people that look at that as “iconic” are the same idiots you find queued up outside the Apple stores whenever the their corporate masters deign to update the design of their products–And, when you go ask those people the “why” of their purchase decisions, what you get is a whole lot of fatuous rationalizations. Very few of them can make a case for why their Apple product is actually essential to their work, or why they need it. All they are would be slaves to the fashion aspect of it, never mind the technical merits.

    And, as such? They are the limited market that stuff works on. Increasingly, though, that market is smaller and smaller.

    Few people I know buy Procter & Gamble products because “advertising”; they buy them because they are on sale, or because they have objective reasons they can articulate for buying them, few of which originate in advertising.

    I think that if someone were to get past the barriers, and actually find out what makes people purchase things, the advertisers would drop most of their advertising in about two seconds flat–The business case just isn’t there. People buy for pricing and because that’s what they’re used to using. Something new comes out, or the old product changes, then they may buy something else, but the advertising has very little to do with it. Look at how many companies succeed without doing a lot of advertising at all–It’s higher than you might think.

    Having done recruiting for the Army, I’m here to tell you that nobody joins the services because they saw some slick ad on TV, or because of something in print that they saw. I think that’s true of a lot of things–You ask anyone about “Why did you buy that…?”, and the answer is rarely going to be “Oh, that cool ad on Superbowl Sunday…”. It’s always going to be “It was on sale…” or “Well, my Mom used that, and I like the scent, because it reminds me of her…”.

    I think a lot of times, advertising is positively detrimental, because while there are few things I have purchased because of it, there are a lot of things I absolutely refuse to buy because the ads annoy me. GEICO, I’m looking at you…

  7. “Half my advertising budget is wasted. The problem is I don’t know which half.”

    I’d honestly suggest both. We tried advertising, joining professional organizations, lead refinement firms, all that jazz. What we found out worked? Word of mouth, and personal contacts.

    Granted, it’s construction contracting, but… Still. The basic principle remains. One of our competitors does all kinds of advertising, pays for all kinds of lead generation services, and do you know what he has to show for any of it? Not a damn thing. He gets 99.99% of his actual work the same way we do, but “One of these days, one of these days…”. Triumph of hope over experience, IMHO.

    Recruiting? LOL… Zero of any of the kids who sent in “contact cards” for things like free t-shirts joined. Zero. All that money? Wasted. Every one of those damn contact cards was a waste of my time and effort, so the loss in terms of advertising dollar was compounded by the losses stemming from recruiter follow-up.

    Back in the early days of it all, I think advertising worked. About the third time that someone went through one of those experiences that Ralphie went through with Ovaltine in “A Christmas Story”, the actual impact began to drop off. It’s just that the advertising agencies kept doubling down on it all, and managed to convince their clients that what they were doing was essential.

    I’m still not convinced. I have never, ever bought a product based on advertising alone–Maybe it made me aware that the product existed, and I tried it out, but that’s it.

  8. Kirk…”Word of mouth, and personal contacts.”

    Facebook is a weird thing, a combination of mass medium and personal contacts. If someone shares a story or a meme with people that he actually knows, it is probably more powerful than if that story or meme shows up unattributed.

  9. @ David Foster,

    “Facebook is a weird thing, a combination of mass medium and personal contacts. If someone shares a story or a meme with people that he actually knows, it is probably more powerful than if that story or meme shows up unattributed.”

    Powerful in what sense? That you piss off friends and casual acquaintances with your unthinking assumptions about their beliefs and feelings, leading to them unfriending you?

    I think, based on what I’ve seen happen around me in real life, that there is very little to no persuasion taking place on any of the social media. What generally does go on is people getting angry at other people, and shutting them down, especially on the Left. The Right, maybe not so much, but they usually don’t react anywhere near as badly as the lefties do when their worldview is questioned.

    Maybe I’m wrong, but I really don’t see any of this BS as being at all effective, in terms of persuading people to change their minds. Reinforcing? Sure. Confirming beliefs, validating opinions? Lots and lots of that going on, but somehow making a fundamental persuasive change in someone’s outlook on things? You are not doing that with even a thousand well-crafted memes, because they’re simply not going to look at them or entertain them as being anything other than the mental equivalent of spam email.

    Case in point: Observe this lady’s experiences, and trace how she changed her mind. Do you see anywhere that a meme or advertising bore any responsibility for her mind being changed?

    To the contrary, most of what her former fellows are doing simply reinforces her decision, and not because they meant to.

    I think the major issue here is that you have to look at actual real-world results, in terms of effects, as opposed to intents. Sure, you may gin up a bunch of enthusiasm among the already converted, but are you selling the product or idea to those who don’t already have buy-in? What effect does all that advertising already have? Do the advertising agencies ever honestly examine what their BS does, in terms of influencing people away from the products they’re supposedly selling? How many potential buyers for GEICO or Progressive are there who’ve decided against even checking with them for rates, based on how annoying their ads are? How many politicians actually bother to take a look at how their political advertising actually creates a negative impression of them vs. the one they think they are?

    There are an awful lot of unexamined assumptions in all of this crap. I don’t think you can magically create an effective “meme campaign” that doesn’t grow organically out of the public mindset. It’s a lot like the NRA; the Left models their view and opinion on that organization based on how they astroturf their own “grassroots” efforts. This cripples them, because the NRA is more an organic expression of its members beliefs than it is some monolithic creature somehow separate from its members. In their view, the organization creates the policies, not the members creating the policies and goals. This is a fundamental failure of the entire mindset we’re talking about, here–The political cartoon isn’t a creator of the public opinion so much as it is a reflection of them. If the cartoon doesn’t resonate with the public, it’s not going to have any effect at all–And, I would submit, that influence is nowhere near as powerful as the various creators like to think.

    What’s that line about the mob and revolutionary France? The leader is stopped by someone, who asks what is going on, and where is the crowd going, and the leader replies “There they go; I must follow them, for I am their leader…”.

  10. An element (at least) of truth makes the meme effective. The more truth and perhaps, somewhat paradoxically, the more exaggerated or silly the meme is the more memorable it is. Trump’s (?) “Pocahontas” and “crooked Hillary” come to mind.


  11. IMHO most advertising has two effects: introducing a product to a potential customer with enough of a hook to get them to try it. As Kirk so well explained, if the switch fails to deliver better value (quality-price net), that’s as far as it goes. Secondly, to remind one of a product they are having a good experience with and tip them into continuing to repeat their selection. It is still going to be an estimation of expected value and advertising can’t trump reality (no pun intended).


  12. Political advertising is fundamentally different from product advertising, though, isn’t it? You don’t see Budweiser running ads that just say how terrible Coors is. That doesn’t help them at all, because it wouldn’t make anyone actually buy Bud, and someone not buying Coors doesn’t mean that they are buying Bud. But in politics, stopping someone from voting for your opponent is a benefit, because you’re trying to get the most votes, so knocking your opponent’s total down is equivalent to building yours up.
    Ridicule is a powerful weapon, and right now the Democrat party is the one that is more Establishment, so they can’t bear being ridiculed, and fundamentally that’s what memes are really all about. They’re not about convincing people what the capital gains tax should be, they’re about showing what a joke someone is. Hence, the left can’t meme.

  13. If by meme you include things like “Trump is Putin’s puppet”, then it isn’t obvious that “the left can’t meme.” Just the opposite; they have tremendous power to do so.

    Do these memes and ads shape our responses? You and I are experienced, and know about manipulation. Kids aren’t, though they’ll condescendingly explain how wise they are. I can point you to kids who believe manifest BS, just because that’s what’s in the air.

  14. “If by meme you include things like “Trump is Putin’s puppet”, then it isn’t obvious that “the left can’t meme.” Just the opposite; they have tremendous power to do so.”

    That’s not a meme. Meme basically means “gif” in this context. What you’re right about is that memes are pitifully weak compared to the power of the MSM. If the MSM wasn’t run by Democrat operatives, Trump would be on track to win 45+ states.

  15. Kirk…yes, the knitting story is a good example of opinion change. The question, though, is: how do you get a lot of people–people who aren’t already members of the choir–to actually read it? It’s not likely that it will be picked up by the Atlantic or the Washington Post or NYT, or that she will be invited to tell her story on CNN or MSNBC.

    Circulation of the story on social media is one approach. I’d argue that the story is more likely to be actually *read* if someone could create a clever image…yeah, sort of a meme…with a link to the story.

    Those of us on this blog are considerably more reading-oriented than the population as a whole, and important to remember that what works for us doesn’t necessarily work for everybody.

    Also possible, of course, to pass the story along verbally to real-life friends: “Yeah, I read this amazing story by a woman who said the knitting world…yeah, *knitting*…had gotten crazily politicized. Let me tell you what happened to her.”

  16. all I do is laugh my ass off at the essential fraud that that infamous “1984” ad pulled off.

    Dude, you don’t know what you are talking about.

    The Mac was a watershed computer hardware moment, just like the Apple ][, the IBM PC, the IBM 360, the DEC PDP-11, and the iPhone.

    1984 was a great sales pitch because it said that there was another way to Do Things. And that got people curious if they were right (by the 1980s, pure product comparison was no longer working as advertisement). And that got people to pay attention.

    And that is all advertising is supposed to do — to get people to Pay Attention.

    In this day and age, it is no longer enough to “build a better mousetrap”. You also need to convince people to look at your mousetrap to see why it is better.

  17. James The Lesser Says:
    February 14th, 2020 at 10:15 am
    If by meme you include things like “Trump is Putin’s puppet”, then it isn’t obvious that “the left can’t meme.” Just the opposite; they have tremendous power to do so.

    Do these memes and ads shape our responses? You and I are experienced, and know about manipulation. Kids aren’t, though they’ll condescendingly explain how wise they are. I can point you to kids who believe manifest BS, just because that’s what’s in the air.

    “Trump is Putin’s Puppet” isn’t “a meme” in the sense this is being used. Any idiot can make that statement, and the only people who are going to pay any attention are people who already believe it.

    The Left can’t meme for reasons already detailed. Their attempts at it are almost uniformly stupid, humorless, and will not go viral.

    The only example which comes to mind which MIGHT have come from some unusually inspired Lefty (more likely, a Right-winger with a self-deprecating sense of humor, though…):

    (picture of trump, angry)

    (picture of trump smiling)

    (with the spacing between the two words minimized by kerning)

    It’s a good joke, and lots of Rightwingers were sending it around. I’m sure the lefties were, because they liked what it said, while GOPers liked the joke, and didn’t have any real concern over the event.

  18. Memes aren’t just about the gif but also the effective message that comes with them. It’s the relationship between the image and the gif. On Twitter (Yes, not real life and who cares?), the left’s favorite retort to anyone questioning them or stating anything contrarian to them, they just called that person a Russian bot. That tactic started losing its effectiveness almost immediately because there’s little illustration to the accusation except for the word, Russian. When the NPC meme started, it was an instant hit because of the accompanying, grey character that illustrated the vapidness of the person for which it was used against. Naturally its leftist targets were offended and, in predictable fashion, appealed to Twitter to have it banned hence fulfilling the accuracy of the NPC meme.

  19. The Apple example above offers a slightly less fraught example of how this may or probably won’t work. I, also, didn’t see Apple as the hero of their 1984 ad.

    At the time, my interest in a computer was to write programs to solve my problems. I managed to scrape together $2500 to buy a PC clone and a few hundred more for Lotus 123 and a printer. The really important ap was the BASIC interpreter that let me do my own programming. At the time, it was impossible to write a Mac program on a Mac, you had to plunk down $10,000 on a Lisa and a couple of thousand more for a compiler plus the Mac to even start. To me, Apple still represents an expensive walled garden and I am in the process of leaving the Microsoft reservation for Linux as well. Obviously, Apple has survived my scorn just fine and I have friends that use Macs, so I’m not at all prejudiced.

    We all know that gun confiscation is a subject near and dear to Bloomberg’s heart. Can you imagine a meme advancing that that wouldn’t spawn thousands of counter memes, many probably better, many taking his own imagery and turning it back on him.

    Bloomberg doesn’t seem willing to engage in the day to day grind of campaigning. It looks like he thinks he can buy a steam roller big enough to crush any opposition to his election. Maybe I should make a meme.

  20. MCS…but now imagine that you had been a graphic designer, without much knowledge above or interest in the computer field. You just want something you can use without too much difficulty. Apple looks a lot better now, does it not?

    And to turn it up a notch, imagine that you were a follower of Cool, who doesn’t want to buy anything unless it is approved by the coolest kids. PCs, so far, have been for nerds, and you sure don’t want to be taken for one of *them*.

  21. David,

    That was still around ten years in the future in 1984. The beginning was visible if you looked closely. Graphics were dot for dot reproductions of the screen on an Epson dot matrix printer. I think the first Laser Writer was another four grand a few years later. It wasn’t an advantage if you were doing what I was doing or accounting and it would be years before Apples had screens big enough for CAD.

    For me it was an expensive walled garden, others saw it as a prudent investment.

    My real point was that this high concept sort of advertising can and does work both ways. P&G can advertise Tide without fear that a large proportion of their audience is in favor of dirty clothes. Politicians have a far harder job to convince the unconvinced. With something like gun control or abortion, it’s probably impossible to advocate for either side without at the same time stimulating the opposition. In the end, you have spent money and are, at best, where you started.

  22. Late to the game, but the problem with advertising was completely summarized in the old dog food story, which I suspect you’ve seen before:

    The company kept putting out better and better ads, based on human audience reaction, but sales just didn’t pick up.
    After some extended research, they discovered the problem.
    The dogs didn’t like it.

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