Mike’s Memes


Last week, I spent more than 20 hours staring at my phone: 11 scrolling through social media feeds, five watching YouTube videos, and three sorting through the bevy of newsletters that assault my inbox every morning. That might sound like a lot, but if you’re anything like me, chances are you’re actually on the low end of the screen-time-spectrum.

Scrolling through content, organic and otherwise, has become a daily ritual for most. And as a result, you may have noticed that the space between your friends’ vacation selfies and baby photos has become increasingly inhabited by a giant in the advertising space: sponsored content.

So what exactly is sponsored content? It can be your favorite NFL player posting a video of their new Purple mattress. It can be your friend from high school modeling the new Fashion Nova collection. And, yes, it can even be a presidential candidate paying for memes on Instagram.

Earlier this month, the Bloomberg 2020 campaign contacted several of Instagram’s most popular meme accounts to post sponsored content in one coordinated blitz.

In each posting, the Bloomberg campaign ads take the form of fake direct messages between the candidate and several of Instagram’s most popular meme accounts. These sponsored – but organic-looking – posts drew hundreds of thousands of likes and even more impressions in a matter of hours. Beyond the social splash, the ads grabbed headlines in the New York Times, CNBC, Axios and several other prominent news outlets. One post from the @GrapeJuiceBoys Instagram account read:

I’ll be the first to admit it: it took me longer than I’m proud of to realize that I was looking at sponsored content. Why? It’s in my title: I’m a content specialist. I’m supposed to know this stuff. But upon further examination, it became apparent why the ads were so effective. Aside from the medium of delivery, Mike’s Memes relied on tested communications principles that we’ve all come to know and use.

As any communicator will tell you, it’s a lot easier to convey a message effectively if you say it in a way people already associate with your subject. Put another way, don’t be afraid to embrace the assumptions your audience holds. For the meme magicians at Mike 2020, that meant playing into the fact their subject, Mike Bloomberg, was a 78-year-old billionaire whose defining attribute this cycle had been his unabashed desire to spend as much money as necessary to win the Democratic presidential primary. The ads feel genuine because they look like an actual direct message Mike Bloomberg (or your grandparent) could have sent. There’s a certain level of disarming authenticity that comes from letting your candidate look silly. As Twitter user Anthony Oliveira explains, it’s the reason why Philadelphia Flyers mascot Gritty works, and Planters’ Baby Nut (the successor to Mr. Peanut) doesn’t. In Oliveira’s words, “You cannot fake chaos; you must risk ugliness; give and hazard all.”

Which leads to my second point: memes as a form of sponsored content are great for grabbing eyeballs. But they’re only effective when your goal is to stay in the spotlight. They rely heavily on shock value, and aren’t effective vehicles for communicating complex policy proposals. This is fine if that’s the scope of your digital communications plan. Just realize that buying attention isn’t cheap — and most campaigns can’t afford to operate like that. In general, you’re much better suited to employ a communications plan that is authentic to you, tailored to the resources and surrogates you have available to make your case. And if persuasion is your goal, you better have some complementary tools and tactics up your sleeve.

At the end of the day, each plan has its own unique needs, goals and aspirations. At Seven Letter, we work with our clients to deploy the best practices of long-term corporate planning with short-term political rapid response techniques to design and manage effective communications campaigns. We’re also constantly innovating to break through the crowded media space to help our clients be heard — which is why we launched our full-service digital communications offering, Seven Letter Labs.

It’s hard to say if Bloomberg’s strategy will pay off in the long run. He’s already secured an impressive earned media return off of his dizzying digital investment. What’s left to be seen is whether these headlines can translate into votes.