You Can’t Buy Memes

Michael Bloomberg is here to meme. But his controversial approach seems to misunderstand internet culture.

Former mayor Mike Bloomberg with pixelated meme sunglasses.
Mark Wilson / Getty / The Atlantic

Yesterday, WorldStar Hip Hop, the content aggregator and music blog with 22.1 million followers on Instagram, posted a video of a boy taking his girlfriend’s photo while she poses in front of a graffitied wall. As the video goes on, the camera zooms in on the boy’s phone screen, and rather than images of a young woman in a baggy sweatshirt, it shows only the words “This is a bloomberg ad.” The caption, written in the style of a popular SpongeBob SquarePants meme, reads “#sPoNsoReD: bY @mIkEbLoOmbErg.” And the video has been viewed more than 500,000 times as of writing.

Mike Bloomberg, the Democratic presidential candidate and former New York City mayor, has paid for sponsored Instagram posts on at least 20 major meme accounts in the past two weeks, all with followings in the millions, as reported by The New York Times’ Taylor Lorenz. The first round of posts were styled as fake direct-message conversations between the account owners and Bloomberg himself, offering to pay for memes that would make him “look cool for the upcoming democratic primary.” In an image posted on @kalesalad (3.5 million followers), Bloomberg’s fake pitch includes the promise “I’ll give you a billion dollars.”

The joke, insofar as there is one, is that Bloomberg knows he’s out of touch and he also knows that he is very rich. For a post on @middleclassfancy (1.8 million followers)—a page that mostly shares memes about suburban ennui, chain restaurants, and semi-creepy dads who are clinically obsessed with grilled meat—the Bloomberg campaign submitted a staged conversation in which the billionaire tech mogul writes, “Even though I myself am not a member of the middle class, I still find your memes relatable and humorous.”

“While a meme strategy may be new to presidential politics,” the Bloomberg campaign’s national spokesperson, Sabrina Singh, told me in an email, “we’re betting it will be an effective component to reach people where they are and compete with President Trump’s powerful digital operation.”

The bet makes sense, but it’s a little off. Memes spread by imitation and iteration. They need to be remixed and repeated. (As with the recent spontaneously circulated image of Bernie Sanders in an oversize coat, saying, “I am once again asking,” or 2016’s “Nasty Woman” micro-economy.) Bloomberg’s images, in paid-for spots on meme accounts, are not really spreading; apart from a semipopular parody post that mocks the former mayor, there have been no major copy-pastes of his template.

The attempt at self-aware humor and the affiliation with a specific sort of Instagram account make Bloomberg’s ads meme-culture-adjacent, but they don’t actually make them memes—which can’t be bought, or at the very least, can’t be bought this simply.

The campaign’s goal was to get Bloomberg’s name in front of more eyeballs, and it has done so. His team tells me it considers the campaign a success, based on the growth of his Instagram following: His account has gained more than 50,000 followers since the first sponsored posts appeared on major meme accounts on February 12. The campaign has not given specifics about what audience in particular it’s hoping the meme ads appeal to, or the amount of money it has paid for them. (The Daily Beast reported earlier this month that the campaign would pay a flat rate of $150 for original content from micro-influencers with followings from 1,000 to 100,000. So, a reasonable guess at the rate for these posts would be in at least the thousands.)

All of the candidates in the Democratic primary are under pressure to engage with internet culture. When Bernie Sanders joined the game-streaming platform Twitch last summer, he gave the same “meet people where they are” justification as Singh did for Bloomberg. The former candidate Andrew Yang’s strategy of taking a simple “free money” talking point onto a range of popular podcasts helped him wriggle into the hearts of many super-online young people (if not the rest of the country).

People who care about meme culture tend to think of making and sharing memes as amoral but somehow pure: A meme can be a package for vulgar or stupid ideas, but it almost always moves through a network because of some desire on the part of the people who make up the network. Introducing money into this process can make it feel fake. In response to a Bloomberg ad on @grapejuiceboys (2.7 million followers), one of the top comments uses the word “shill.” On a @fuckjerry (15.1 million followers) post: “I hope he paid you good[,] because you’re about to lose a lot of followers including myself.” Each Bloomberg-sponsored post has thousands of comments, not all negative, but these are the sorts of sentiments that hover near the top, getting hundreds of likes.

There is, undeniably, something uncomfortable about watching an extraordinarily wealthy person try to purchase organic expression. There’s also a jarring discordance to the collaboration between WorldStar Hip Hop—once a flashpoint in the Bush-era conservative panic over rap culture—and a presidential candidate who has been extensively criticized for his defense of racially discriminatory police tactics during the same years. Bloomberg has been endorsed by dozens of politicians, most recently the mayor of Charlotte, North Carolina, as well as a handful of celebrities; he’s proven his sincerity in ways that make sense to certain types of influencers. But in the meme world, the backlash to the Bloomberg posts “definitely has to do with the fact that people have this ideology of authenticity, or that meme should be organic,” says Piia Varis, a media and online-discourse researcher at Tilburg University in the Netherlands. “Then there is this billionaire who buys memes, and that’s just something that is not done.”

Varis compares the Bloomberg campaign to “Warren’s Meme Team,” a large-scale digital effort (primarily involving Snapchat and Instagram filters) organized by the MIT engineer Misha Leybovich, who supports Warren but is unaffiliated with her campaign. In an extensive, emoji-covered document published in November, Leybovich showed a passable understanding of what a meme is (calling it “any ‘unit of culture’ that spreads as people replicate it and add their own twist”) and a miserable understanding of who makes them: “Skilled creators who [can] run the full stack process from message to creative to distribution.”

The people who really make memes do not have to execute a five-point strategy for distribution, typically. The plan was widely mocked on Reddit and Twitter, and taken as further proof of a far-right claim popularized on 4chan during the 2016 election: “The Left can’t meme.”

By contrast, take @dasharez0ne, an anonymous artist who has been tweeting for five years in the persona of a socially anxious skeleton who advocates crying at work. That account has only 137,000 followers, but its unsolicited endorsement of Bernie Sanders earlier this month was covered by digital-media outlets and retweeted more than 1,700 times. The top responses to the initial tweet are mostly some variation of “thank you admin” and “the only endorsement that matters.” In an email to me, @dasharez0ne said of Bloomberg’s approach: “CULTURE ISNT A YACHT YOU CANT BUY IT. STAY OUT OF OUR CULTURE AND WE WILL STAY OUT OF YOUR PENT HOUSE.”

Certainly Bloomberg’s Instagram strategy is helping his campaign on some level. Each of the campaign’s posts has hundreds of thousands of likes. The disbelieving comments themselves drive engagement, and bump the post’s position in other users’ feeds. But the ads do not contain any content other than the information that Mike Bloomberg exists and is running for president. “Reach and visibility is not the same as impact,” Varis says. “The message also has to speak to somebody on some level.”