Meme Thievery Goes Corporate

The newest strategy for marketing to young people is stealing their jokes.

A variation on the "distracted boyfriend" meme
Antonio Guillem / Getty / The Atlantic

For a company that sells fancy skin-care products, Drunk Elephant’s Instagram account tells a lot of jokes about carbohydrates. “I miss the 90s, when bread was good for you, and no one knew what kale was,” the brand posted in August. Two weeks later, the brand exposed carb trickery: “Raisin cookies that look like chocolate chip cookies are the reason I have trust issues.” A few days ago, Drunk Elephant was thinking about the much-maligned nutritional unit once again. “You know who’s always there for you?” the post asked. Sorry for spoiling the punch line, which is “Carbs.”

The skin-care brand’s quippy, Cathy-comic-esque thoughts on eating—as well as dog ownership, procrastination, and the gym—are a fixture of its Instagram marketing. They’ve popped up on the account every couple of days for years, all rendered in a black, all-caps font against a white background with a colorful frame that mirrors Drunk Elephant’s product packaging. To people scrolling by, Drunk Elephant might look like a friendly, slightly exhausted young woman, or maybe a nascent comic, not a company selling $68 tubs of moisturizer at Sephora.

There’s a reason Drunk Elephant’s Instagrams don’t look like marketing or have anything to do with its products: Many of them were written by unsuspecting Twitter users with no affiliation with the brand. Those writers might not be alerted until a friend notices and tips them off to their zombie joke, newly appropriated by a brand recently acquired for $845 million by a beauty-industry conglomerate. The practice might be called “aggregation” or “curation,” but in the case of a company using others’ work without payment or permission, it might also be called “stealing.” (Drunk Elephant did not respond to a request for comment.)

Drunk Elephant’s habit of borrowing memes and viral tweets might be particularly notable for a company its size, but the practice has become common among brands looking for creative, inexpensive ways to get in front of young people online. Companies selling things as disparate as underwear, vitamins, and beauty products now repurpose others’ jokes from across the internet, all in an effort to convince consumers that brands really are their friends.

Instagram was never supposed to be a place for jokes or commerce, but now it’s full of both. The app was launched in 2010 as a repository for smartphone photography, and to emphasize the images, it relegated text to small, partially obscured captions and prevented users from inserting links into their posts. As with any social platform, the ways people use Instagram have developed in response to its limitations. Practices such as text-heavy images and branded accounts looking the same as those of individuals calcified into norms, and they helped meme aggregators such as FuckJerry and the Fat Jew amass millions of followers by taking screenshots of viral jokes usually found on Twitter, cutting off the names and handles of the people who wrote them, and posting them on Instagram. The most successful meme accounts have been able to use their millions of followers to pivot their business model from sponsored content to more traditional goods and services: FuckJerry and the Fat Jew both have their own alcohol brands, among other things.

Now the path from joke aggregation to product development has been flipped, and companies that already have something to sell are appropriating memes and jokes to attract eyeballs. That’s how you end up with the CBD-supplement brand Not Pot posting screenshots of Twitter jokes about therapy (“a therapist: expensive. a box of hair dye: $7”) and exhaustion (“I am not in a Walmart parking lot physically right now but I am in a Walmart parking lot emotionally”) like a teenage memelord waiting for a ride home from marching-band practice. (Not Pot, like Drunk Elephant and all of the other brands mentioned in this article, did not return a request for comment.)

Nikita Walia, a creative strategist and the founder of Blank, a social-media consultancy, says that practically every brand she works with requests “hella relatable memes.” Often, that means original content that simply uses popular joke formats, but not every brand is so scrupulous about originality. Either way, one of the method’s main goals is to juice engagement numbers. “A lot of brands are like, ‘Maybe if I’m relatable, people will want to share my content, save it, send it to their friends,’” Walia says. “People send memes and funny things to each other all day online, so on that level it’s effective.” Walia isn’t convinced that those metrics are always good indicators of a strategy’s real usefulness in terms of actually selling a product, but in the short term, the numbers keep management and investors happy.

Instagram users may love memes, but the tide of internet opinion has started to turn against the platform’s most famous content thieves. The backlash means that most brands attribute their borrowed jokes in some way. Not Pot includes Twitter users’ handles and avatars in the screenshots it posts on Instagram, as do Beyond Yoga, a sports-apparel company, and Ritual, a vitamin start-up. Drunk Elephant sometimes tags a joke’s author in the caption of its Instagrams, but sometimes those links go to other meme aggregators who clearly didn’t write the jokes themselves. Other times, the jokes have been recycled through the internet meme cycle so many times that divining their original source is impossible. What’s far less common is asking for permission to reuse someone’s work, according to Walia.

Kelly Collette, a stand-up comic from Ohio, says she wasn’t contacted by Drunk Elephant before it posted her recent viral joke (“I love when you hand a dog a treat and they’re like, thanks, I’ll be having this in the other room. Excuse me”), but it did tag her Instagram handle in the caption. “I was flattered because I love their brand,” Collette says. But then nothing happened, even though the Drunk Elephant account has nearly 800,000 followers. “I really didn’t get anything out of it—I didn’t get followers, I didn’t get moisturizer.” For people trying to make a living in creative fields or find an audience without many resources, posting their work online is an important part of getting by. But the idea that comics or writers might find fans or work because of the “exposure” brands provide them is mostly a fiction, and one that’s very convenient for companies looking to keep their copywriting budget low.

Collette emphasizes that she isn’t mad that one of her jokes made it onto the Drunk Elephant Instagram account, but that she just wishes the company would be a little more generous with credit when using others’ work, and that it would ask permission. “It’s not great that they took the joke, reformatted it into a different font, and presented it kind of like they wrote it,” Collette says. She takes particular exception to the hashtag the brand uses on all its memes, #DEsays: “They actually didn’t say that. I did. I said that.”

The larger question, of course, is why the people steering a high-end skin-care brand want to market their products with jokes about dog behavior, among other seemingly random topics. Walia says that beyond simple engagement, brands want to seem more human. “It helps them as a thought exercise to think about who their brand would be as a person out in the world,” Walia explains. But when that exercise turns outward and companies start what she calls “cosplaying personhood,” things can get awkward—or exploitative. “There’s a lot of cases where rooms of marketers think something is just slang but it has a deeper history on the internet,” she says. Walia cites Peaches Monroee, the young woman who invented the phrase Eyebrows on fleek, as a prime example of how companies mine the humor of marginalized people to bolster their own “authenticity.” The joke from Monroee, a black teenager, was quickly repurposed by beauty brands worldwide, almost none of which ever paid its de facto copywriter a single cent.

Joke theft isn’t just a dubiously ethical marketing tactic. It’s also an impressively cynical way for corporations to sell things online. Like drink brands and snack companies that tweet about depression, repurposing the funny thoughts of real people co-opts the essential elements of being human to extract an emotional response from potential shoppers. In exchange for an opportunity to feel seen or understood for a fleeting moment while scrolling Instagram, Drunk Elephant simply asks that you consider its products next time your skin looks a little blotchy. In a country where people are more and more alienated from traditional means of community and stability, brands cloaking themselves in the language of friendship can feel more like a sinister manipulation than a lame ploy, although it might be both. Doing it through the stolen thoughts of actual humans is even bleaker.

But don’t get too mad. The brands are lonely too, which they’ll tell you all about on Instagram. “When Tinkerbell started dying because she didn’t get enough attention” Not Pot says, via tweet screenshot. “I felt that.”