There is large amount of research on the influence of humor and political comedy in campaigning with a focus on Saturday Night Live, Daily Show, Colbert Report, and more. (e.g., Baumgartner and Becker 2018; Baumgartner and Morris 2006). But what about memes? Memes are copied images with added text – usually funny quips in variety of forms - posted on social platforms. Memes are not new to campaigns, as memes created by average users were frequently shared in the 2016 election (Belt 2019). But memes can also be professionally crafted. As the New York Times reported, Michael Bloomberg commissioned “Memes 2020” to create and post memes on Instagram on his behalf, suggesting that his campaign thought humorous memes would be influential.
Meme 2020’s Instagram influencers posted “memes” that depicted conversation bubbles between Bloomberg and an Instagram influencer. According to the definition of a “meme,” these Instagram conversations may not even be considered a “meme.” These fake conversations were mostly Bloomberg poking fun at himself. The conservation bubble appeared to be from him but they were created by the company. The memes included disclaimers such as “yes this is really #sponsored by @mikebloomberg.”
1. Pay top Instagram influencers (those users with over one million followers) to post funny images of the candidate on Instagram.
1. Gain attention from potential voters to increase favorability and evaluations (maybe vote choice – *fingers crossed*) with a controlled message.
2. Appeal to the younger demographic on Instagram
3. Demonstrate that the candidate is well-funded and is electable.
Did Bloomberg’s memes meet these three marketing goals?
1. No. The memes did not migrate from Instagram to other social media platforms; therefore, these paid, company-created memes likely did not generate much attention.
2. No. These memes lacked narrative and were not authentic. Unauthentic content is not appealing to young citizens. As digital natives, young people are more likely to identify “handled,” “canned,” or fake content – and then, do not share that content. Bloomberg’s memes also clearly illustrated that he was old and “out of touch.” This is funny and humorous but not a message to send to young voters.
3. Maybe. These memes demonstrated that Bloomberg was a wealthy billionaire but did not indicate that he was electable.
Do memes “work”?
If we define “work” as “influencing candidate favorability and evaluations” then the answer is there is no solid evidence that memes are an effective strategy to build the ideal candidate image. Several studies report skepticism that memes influence political decisions and candidate support (see Kulkarni 2017; Tay 2014). Do memes mobilize? There is some evidence that memes encourage political participation (Heiskanen 2017; Sreekumar and Vadrevu 2018). Do memes inform us about policy in a humorous way? A recent experiment conducted by Terri Towner and Jody Baumgartner, exposing subjects to funny memes about the pros and cons of legalizing marijuana, found no influence on marijuana attitudes.
Other approaches to crafting the visual images that actual “work” would be creating and sharing authentic visuals that show that candidate’s “true self” to citizens, such a behind-the-scenes looks and real interactions with voters. Candidates must push beyond paid content and employs organic content, such as Instagram stories, searchable threads (use images with hashtags!), and a series of blogs, that builds a community and interacts with citizens. We do not deny that digital visuals – and memes – will continue to be major tools in the political campaign.
Note: Many of the memes sponsored by Bloomberg and posted on Instagram have been removed from the Instragram influencers' accounts.