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Meme Responsibly: Marketing Lessons from the Jerry Media Fiasco

Business

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The backlash of a popular meme factory presents big questions for marketers who want to engage with the form to draw eyes to their brand.

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We’ve all seen it: the pithy yet relatable sans serif commentary. The accompanying GIF or image that punctuates it. And the string of comments directing followers to their friends, with choruses of “same!” or “extremely me” signaling success. This form of meme is proliferating wildly across the internet, much to the delight of their creators…and to the frustration of those whose sentiments are stolen in the process.

How Do You Make Enemies With Memes?

This week marked the biggest backlash to the practice, as “meme farm” Jerry Media, home to Instagram accounts like @fatjew, @beigecardigan, and their flagship @fuckjerry, was forced to apologize for their years-long practice of using memes without attribution to their original creators. And as advertisers who may either work with these accounts as influencers, or who mimic their style to attract savvy consumers, this backlash and subsequent statement matter.

In a Medium post published after an aggressive account boycott spearheaded by Vulture’s Megh Wright and taken up by hundreds of popular comedians, FuckJerry founder Elliot Tebele shares, “I know I’ve made enemies over the years for using content and not giving proper credit and attribution to its creators.” Insisting that the newness of Instagram contributed to the confusion, he went on to say, “I simply didn’t give any thought to the idea that reposting content could be damaging in any way.”

Many revenue-generating companies likely think similarly. If it’s online, and we agree, what’s the harm in sharing an unattributed image? The work is still getting seen, after all. The challenge here is that many of these creators are also attempting to monetize their work. When other companies take this work and pass it off as their own, it harms their ability to do so in a meaningful or effective way.

The Tide is Shifting. It Has To.

Comedy Central is the most notable recent entity to have to rethink this relationship. In launching their new Thursday night lineup, they paired with FuckJerry to run ads in the popular meme format. While the content was original, the form was familiar—and in being posted by this account, instantly associated with a disingenuous way of doing business. To their credit, the network has since stopped running these ads and deleted the previously posted ones. But their willingness to work with the company likely won’t be soon forgotten by the comedians who boycotted the account and who work in concert with the channel to promote their own (original!) work.

According to Tebele, the modus operandi at FuckJerry is about to change on a fundamental level:

“Effective immediately, we will no longer post content when we cannot identify the creator, and will require the original creator’s advanced consent before publishing their content to our followers. It is clear that attribution is no longer sufficient, so permission will become the new policy.”

While it understandably remains to be seen if they will follow this newly stated policy, it’s clear that the organization was shamed (and hit by a loss of over 200,000 followers) into taking a different route.

What Does it Look Like to Meme Responsibly?

The lessons to be learned here for marketers are twofold. First, should you choose to work with influencers to produce and post content, one condition of your work with them is that the content they create is original, and that their account doesn’t otherwise employ these theft tactics to generate followership and engagement. If they work with other contributors to create content, inquire as to whether or not those contributors are being paid or otherwise compensated for their participation. By ensuring these questions are posed prior to the signing of a contract, you will have taken all good faith efforts to ensure you’re working with an influencer or integrity.

Second, as you create your own memes or images for social media consumption, do your own attribution or crediting. There are countless businesses engaging in a version of the practice that Jerry Media was “caught” in. Whether you’re similarly clipping tweets, or taking quotes and laying them over pretty backgrounds or pensive pictures, the result is the same: a theft of intellectual property. Even if it’s only being done in 280 character increments, it does count…and people do notice.

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