Why Presidential Candidates Should Only Share Political Memes With Great Caution

Inside the meme-ocracy

Headshot of Christopher Heine

If 2012 was the "Twitter Election," this year's presidential race is more about zingers in the form of memes and GIFs than 140 characters—especially with presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump socking it to his rivals daily on social media.

Such buzzy blurbs can be funny, they can be mean, they can go viral, and they can backfire. Whatever the result, marketing experts believe that Trump and the Democrats—whether Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders is the nominee—will need to sharpen their skills around using such formats.

"Memes and GIFs are the perfect expression in the era of snark and Snapchat," explained marketing consultant David Deal. "And the 2016 election is already a troll's dream."

The numbers bear that out, with Trump clearly dominating the conversation. This month the candidate ran an Instagram ad that ended with video of former Secretary of State Clinton laughing maniacally in a clip taken out of context and laid over a fiery scene from the infamous Benghazi attack, which killed two American diplomats and brought the Democrat under intense scrutiny. Thanks to Trump's supporters, the spot became an instant meme and a viral hit for the candidate. According to Amobee Brand Intelligence, it increased Clinton's association with the Benghazi incident by 30 percent.

In late March, Trump tweeted a picture of his wife, former model Melania Trump, alongside a photo of then-candidate Ted Cruz's wife Heidi Cruz, commenting that the images "were worth a thousand words," an obvious suggestion that Trump's wife was more attractive than Cruz's, infuriating Cruz and many others. The tweet carried the hashtag #lyinted, created by Trump and used repeatedly by his supporters in memes to paint Cruz as less than truthful. The hashtag was used a total of 491,600 times before Cruz dropped out of the race, according to Union Metrics.

"You've got to get people to pause in their news feed and get their attention, whether that is with a text-only social post, a video, a meme or a GIF," said an agency executive who works on GOP campaigns but asked not to be named.

Imgur reports that some 20,000 politically themed memes have garnered millions of clicks on the site this year, while GIF haven Tumblr reports it has disseminated 13.7 million election-related posts.

Platforms like those are often the birthplace for memes that crawl the web before running wild on the likes of Facebook, which told Adweek it has seen nearly twice as many users (75 million) engage with election-oriented posts from January through April of this year compared to the last four months of the 2012 cycle (43 million).

Trump's anti-Heidi Cruz bit and others like it aside, it remains the general public, not the campaigns, that are chiefly responsible for creating and spreading memes. None of the campaigns responded to Adweek's inquiries about their plans to make their own memes and GIFs. But if they do ramp it up, they would be wise to be very careful, advised Sarah Newhall, evp, strategy and insights at agency Blue State Digital, which worked on President Barack Obama's campaigns. Jordan Cohen, CMO of Fluent, which has worked with GOP and Democratic pols, agreed, pointing to a cautionary tale last fall when Cruz's team created a meme-inspiring video to appeal to gun-rights voters called "Making Machine-Gun Bacon with Ted Cruz." It went viral, but, Cohen wonders, "did it help him as a candidate? Probably not. Memes are aimed at younger voters, who are really good bullshit detectors. If it's not authentic and doesn't resonate, it's going to fall flat."

In the coming months, meme-loving millennials will be in the crosshairs of Trump and, assuming she is the nominee, Clinton. A Harvard Institute of Politics poll from April found that a significant slice of Gen Y voters were "unenthusiastic" about both Trump (49 percent) and Clinton (40 percent).

Which likely means one thing, Deal predicted: "We will become saturated with memes by Election Day."

This story first appeared in the May 23, 2016 issue of Adweek magazine.

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@Chris_Heine Christopher Heine is a New York-based editor and writer.