We live in an age where anyone and everyone is susceptible to being put on blast for even the most innocent of Internet missteps. Social media has played a significant role in this, a fact that has turned Twitter from a novel communication platform into an open forum for public harassment. While often the degree to which someone is publicly shamed is far out of proportion to the action that garnered ridicule in the first place – if there was an initial action at all – the consequences of the negative attention can be catastrophically damaging nonetheless. 

One surefire way to attract the negative attention of the masses is to accidentally appropriate or misuse an aspect of popular culture. The Internet has given birth to an unfathomable number of widespread inside jokes – referred to as memes – that often evade detection by even the savviest of marketers. This can result in brand disaster. That is why legal marketers need to be aware of Internet culture and vet all marketing materials before making them public to ensure their law firm isn’t going to rise to the front page of Reddit. (If you do not know what Reddit is, you need to begin educating yourself about Internet culture.)

Examples of Internet Marketing Misfires

A classic example – and I’m using the word “classic” as it refers to in Internet years – occurred in 2012 and involved global Fortune 500 company Nestle. Nestlé had just launched a Facebook fan page for its popular Kit Kat brand. To promote the launch, it posted an image of a bear playing the drums with two oversized Kit Kat bars. Unfortunately, the bear in the images had a remarkably similar appearance to the popular pedobear meme, a cartoon bear long used on the Internet as visual shorthand for sites posting material with inappropriate overtones toward minors. Nestlé quickly took the image down.

While Nestlé’s faux pas is an example of a brand that inadvertently capitalized on an existing Internet phenomenon and suffered because of it, others have attempted to incorporate Internet culture into their campaigns purposefully, only to commit what the kids call a major fail. Take, for example, FAFSA, the largest source of federal student aid in the U.S. In 2014, presumably in an effort to be cheeky, the entity tweeted a traditional meme (still image with text overlaid) taken from the popular movie “Bridesmaids.” In it, leading lady Kristen Wiig is pictured on a plane wearing sunglasses and sporting a cartoonish frown. The overlaid text read, “Help me I’m poor,” a line from the movie. FASFA created a new context for the image and phrase by writing the corresponding snippet: “If this is you, then you better fill out your FASFA.” Shortly thereafter, the Internet fervor began and the tweet made the news.

Avoiding Reputational Damage

The challenge with dodging landmines like accidentally referencing or misusing an Internet meme is that you don’t know what you don’t know. However, there are some steps you can take to better ensure that you won’t become the next brand to be publicly crucified on social media.

  • Rely on Internet-savvy personnel to vet digital marketing materials: Every legal marketer needs someone they can turn to who can review all digital marketing materials for appropriateness before publishing them online. While it may seem ageist to lean toward your younger staffers, the truth is that most of Internet culture speaks to a youthful subset of the population, i.e., the millennials and under. See your millennial employees as an asset and tap them to ensure your communications don’t have the potential to create a digital firestorm.
  • Do your research: Are you trying to use a meme in a marketing campaign but aren’t sure if it has alternative or hidden meanings? Fortunately, there’s a reference for that. It’s called Know Your Meme: The Internet Meme Database, a searchable collection of a whole host of Internet memes, from the more obscure (which was actually used in a viral Sony Ericsson ad campaign in 2011) to the commonly known.
  • When in doubt, avoid: While I fully advocate taking risks with your brand and trying to inject levity, culturally relevant or thought-provoking material into law firm marketing campaigns, it takes a marketer who is incredibly attuned to Internet subculture to confidently market outside the box. If you do not feel you are equipped with the cultural fluency required to conduct this kind of marketing, then simply do not do it.

Piggybacking on cultural phenomenon and Internet memetics can be a great way to get your brand noticed and inspire emotional responses from your audiences. However, it can also attract unwanted scrutiny and harassment. Thoroughly assess the references you are incorporating into your marketing activities to ensure you are not accidentally saying something beyond the message you intend to deliver.

Do you have questions about how to make your content relevant and engaging? Contact Terry M. Isner at tisner@jaffepr.com.