The Creators of 4 Meme-Inspiring Ads Discuss the Campaigns That Spawned Them

Adweek caught up with the minds behind several viral sensations

Memes inspired by ads are not uncommon, often extending the reach of campaigns via unpaid media. But it’s hard to predict when an ad might inspire such a viral sensation as the “But That’s None of My Business” Kermit meme or riffs on The Most Interesting Man in the World’s “I don’t always drink beer” line and harder still to try to make it happen. We caught up with the creators of several ads that went on to inspire popular memes.

It’s hard to pinpoint an exact starting point for advertising’s influence on internet meme culture, but Havas’ Dos Equis concept, which was conceived by the creative team of Karl Lieberman and Brandon Henderson at what was then Euro RSCG (now Havas) in 2006, is not a bad place to start. If it wasn’t the first, it was certainly one of the biggest. The duo came up with the idea based on the insight that “guys at bars aren’t afraid of being uncool, they’re afraid of being uninteresting,” as they explained to Adweek via email.

According to the site Know Your Meme, the meme inspired by the ad started gaining traction the following year but didn’t really take off until 2009, reaching its peak the next year but enduring in popularity to this day.

The campaign’s initial reception did not indicate its eventual success or ubiquity on the web. In fact, a co-worker was so unimpressed with the work that he told Lieberman and Henderson they would be known as “Team So-So” between their work for Dos Equis and the agency’s Volvo account. The client, too, had reservations, particularly with the now famous line in which the character admits he doesn’t always use the product and also with his age being so far outside the brand’s target demographic.

The campaign didn’t take off overnight, first appearing only regionally. When Lieberman and Henderson interviewed with Wieden + Kennedy a couple years later, they explained, no one there had even heard of it. Its creators were only at Euro RSCG for the campaign’s first three spots or so, although some of the lines they wrote showed up later on.

“If we had stayed there too much longer, we would have ruined it,” they admitted.

Ultimately, the campaign proved a success for the pair at a time when, according to Henderson, they were the “team that would throw in strange ideas that would be immediately killed in meetings.”

Lieberman added that the experience taught him that “if you write about things you know, bend those to the brand, you’ll have a lot more success.”

That doesn’t always mean you can predict what will be successful, though.

“We’re constantly surprised by what does and doesn’t do well,” he added. “We make a lot of stuff that we think is awesome and doesn’t catch on.”

Asked what they thought about Havas’ new most interesting man, played by Augustin Legrand, they said they’re “grateful the thing is still going,” while admitting it’s “hard to follow Sean Connery” in reference to the Bond-like nature of the role.

Following Heineken USA’s decision to move the Dos Equis creative account from Havas to Droga5 without a review, the character’s future is uncertain, but the memes will undoubtedly live on.

Henderson and Lieberman shared some of their favorite takes on the meme, several of which appear below.

‘That’s not how any of this works’

Leo Burnett Chicago executive creative directors Jeff Candido and Brian Shembeda said it “seems like only yesterday” when they created the 2014 “Beatrice” spot for Esurance.

They first became aware that a meme inspired by the ad was making its way around the internet when they were preparing their own GIFs of the “That’s not how this works. That’s not how any of this works” line. There was a lag between the airing of the ad on broadcast TV and the brand uploading it to YouTube. Thinking they’d be the first to create a meme from the ad shortly after it appeared on YouTube, they were surprised to find that people had already made their own GIFs and memes, directly from the broadcast version.

“That is when you know you have arrived, when you have gotten positive meme GIFs,” Shembeda told Adweek.

“Even before memes existed, we always set out to be catchy, wanted to make something that would stick,” added Candido. “Rather than the jingle or the tagline, lines or repeatable phrases become GIFs and memes that people are sharing, multiplying the media budget for free.”

They said that while sometimes they are surprised at what people latch onto, that was not the case with “Beatrice,” and that the line is pretty apparent and “kind of an easy thing for people to use.” Subsequently, the memes it inspired used the line exactly as intended, although even Candido and Shembeda couldn’t have predicted how popular or enduring a reference it would become. After going through a waning period, the “That’s not how any of this works” meme regained traction during the 2016 presidential election, encapsulating the incredulity of many voters otherwise at a loss for words.

The client was pleased enough with the widespread nature of the meme inspired by the ad to send Candido and Shembeda a few of their favorite iterations over the years.

‘But that’s none of my business’

A more unlikely meme was spawned form adam&eveDDB’s 2014 “Be More Tea” spot for Lipton, featuring The Muppets. At one point early in the ad, Kermit sips from his tea casually while all manner of Animal craziness goes on outside.

Somewhere, someone seized on the moment and added the caption, “But that’s none of my business” to an image of Kermit sipping a cup of Lipton, and a versatile meme was born.

“Working with Kermit, Animal and Miss Piggy was a career highlight and as much fun as you would imagine,” adam&eveDDB partners Patrick McClelland and Fergal Balance, who worked together on the ad, told Adweek via email.

They added that they still enjoy watching the original 60-second version of the spot, which only ran once during the Oscars. “It would have been great to have seen it run on TV a few more times,” they said.

A few months after the spot aired, they stumbled upon the “But that’s none of my business” meme on Twitter and were understandably a bit perplexed. Originally, a relatively obscure meme, the creative duo said it has “been intriguing to watch its popularity grow exponentially since then.”

As with the meme inspired by “Beatrice,” Kermit’s “But that’s none of my business” regained traction during the 2016 election, as people using the meme, which had long been used to point out hypocrisy, increasingly turned their attention to politicians. It also received a significant boost after the Cleveland Cavaliers’s 2016 NBA Finals win, when LeBron James posted a message on Instagram addressing his doubters while referencing the meme, accompanied by an image of Kermit sipping tea on a hat next to the NBA championship trophy.

“We doubt you can ever intentionally manufacture a successful meme; all you can do is try to make something that people like enough to share in one form or another … hopefully in a positive light,” Balance and McClelland said.

Asked if they had any favorite takes on the meme, they pointed to the Florida A&M marching band’s performance (in the video below around the three-minute mark).

Captain Obvious

Despite the difficulties in intentionally manufacturing a meme, CP+B tried to do just that with its “Captain Obvious” character inspired by the schoolyard insult. It helps that people were using the phrase well before the Hotels.com campaign came along in 2014.

CP+B chief creative officer Ralph Watson said the campaign “exceeded the expectations of the client and the agency,” and CP+B has attempted to leverage its success by providing audiences with subtly branded content to generate memes with the character. He noted that there is no overt Hotels.com branding, with the meme instead relying on people already associating the character with the brand.

“Basically, people were already using the phrase, so now they had a real-life character to echo what they were doing,” Watson told Adweek. “We gave a branded space to echo what people were already doing.”

He added: “When we did Captain Obvious running for president, we really leaned into that.”

The agency provided a plethora of green-screen footage for people to use, and within a month or so, there were around 150 million views of the GIF content, according to Watson. Captain Obvious also got involved with live memes during presidential debates.

“Many times, I think what people do with your advertising is funnier than what we did,” Watson said. “We’re asking consumers to participate. It’s only fair we participate in what they’re doing. The hardest thing is just letting go. It takes confidence to put things out there without knowing what people will do.”

CP+B referenced the inherent difficulty in giving the internet free reign with the character, providing a self-aware: “Running on green screen, please internet be gentle” disclaimer.

The character also has a presence on Twitter, where a campaign was launched in the wake of the social media platform’s implementation of a policy to not verify accounts for fictional characters in 2015.

Captain Obvious shows no signs of slowing down in the future and will soon be making the leap over the pond, as CP+B London rolls out the character in the U.K.

Meanwhile, at an agency somewhere, a creative is diligently working on an ad that the internet will turn into the next popular ad-inspired meme, whether that’s their intention or not.