“Weird flex but ok”

How meme culture has become the newest marketing strategy

On social media, the December period was full of memes surrounding AirPods, and the customers who purchased them. AirPods are Bluetooth earbuds that were released in December 2016 by Apple. So why have they become so popular in the past few months?


Our current online meme culture can explain this. Memes have managed to transform the AirPod from being a mere set of Bluetooth earphones, to be a symbol of wealth and high social status. Meme culture has managed to create a set of personality traits for those who purchase AirPods. These customers are stereotyped as exuberating snobbery and upholding class divisions. Of course, as most memes are, this is highly satirical. In the real world, no one blames AirPod users for entrenching class divisions or views them as elitist snobs. However, it is, nevertheless, funny to joke about them in this way.


Regardless of what is being said about AirPod users, the constant talk of this Apple Product and those who have purchased them has made the general public more aware that AirPods even exist as a product. I realised this when going out in the post-Christmas period. Every AirPod user who walked past me made me giggle, their presence reminded me of things I had seen online. I wasn’t sure of whether AirPod users had become hyper-visible as a result of meme culture, or if there was a genuine increase in the number of AirPod users around. Thinking about it now, both these factors probably influenced each other. Most of the memes about AirPods don’t make sense and definitely shouldn’t be taken seriously, but it is exactly this that makes them have such high comedic value.


This Christmas, AirPods were indeed an incredibly popular present. Many customers were even faced with stock shortages in the run up to the big day. It is interesting how such popularity has stemmed from a product that was initially mocked for looking ‘hideous’ and is now seen as emblematic of someone elevating into a higher social status. What I found especially funny were the memes that had people ‘casually’ screenshotting their phone screen with the AirPod charging overlay ‘accidentally’ on the screen. A, not so subtle, hint that they owned AirPods. My favourite one which I think perfectly encompasses the ‘flexing’ nature associated with owning AirPods is shown below. Here, not only are the AirPods themselves being used to indicate wealth, but they are also being used as a means to brag about  other possesions.


It’s incredible that, having only been released two years ago, this product has made such a mainstream and lasting impression on people and social media. Despite the light-hearted nature of the meme’s popularity, it has definitely been a success in terms of publicity for the product. Before December, AirPods were something I never noticed or had any thought about. But now when I’m walking around in public I basically can’t miss them, seeing someone with AirPods never fails to stand out to me. And perhaps, when my current wireless earphones break, I might consider buying AirPods in the future (if I ever have the cash). That’s what meme culture does so greatly, it raises awareness of a product for a company, free of charge. Apple is a company worth billions of pounds, but was able to benefit from a surprise marketing strategy that they didn’t even plan for. It safe to say that the memes surrounding AirPods mean that the product is definitely here to stay.


The success of the AirPod meme is just metonymical of how ‘viral marketing’ is the new way forward – companies are noticing the benefits of creating instant, cheap, large-scale marketing campaigns that essentially run themselves through memes. If you look at any big brand’s Twitter page, you can see how the social media team behind the account is spending all of their time keeping up with the ever-changing meme culture, making sure that their tweets stay relevant. One key example is Netflix, a streaming service that releases original TV shows and films that rapidly become meme-able content. Netflix is always quick to jump on the ‘meme wave’, utilising these trends to promote their newest releases.


Fenty Beauty is also a brand with a tight grip on meme culture. Their recent advertising campaign, with the queen of memes that is Tiffany Pollard (aka New York), showed how a clear grasp of your target audience and the memes that they engage with can lead to an incredibly successful ad-campaign.


Fenty prides itself on having an inclusive shade range. As a result, their products attract many people of colour, and this awareness of the high POC audience is reflected in the language adopted on their Twitter account.

Whether it is the company’s intention or not, it is obvious that a presence in meme culture can be beneficial for a brand. It can also have adverse effects, especially when the brand misses the mark, like this Little Mix ‘public apology’ that appropriated the ‘wig snatching’ meme in a deeply unfunny way:




I wouldn’t bother watching it.


When looking at meme culture, we must also look at the background of the users behind the memes. A lot of the users who create content that eventually goes viral identify as black, and nearly every time, corporations benefit from the viral meme, with little credit being attributed to those who create it. A similar debate is also seen surrounding discussions on Digital Blackface, and how non-black social media users are regularly using black people/emojis in their memes. This can be argued to reproduce the stereotypes that have plagued the black community for centuries, while similarly not recognising these implication while profiting of their success. An interesting article was published on this in the Guardian - ‘Why are memes of black people reacting so popular online?’ by Ellen E. Jones.


Although meme culture is great, one thing that internet users need to do is work out how to use platforms like Twitter for self-expression, whilst ensuring that corporations don’t steal their content for profit.

Timi Sotire