The Growing Power of the Meme

From Business Week:

A scruffy, twentysomething man in a cardigan walks down the street, trailed by Sergio Flores, aka Sexy Sax Man, belting out a grinding tune. Cardigan guy passes someone “planking” atop a fire hydrant, someone else doing “the worm” along the sidewalk, and cats with limes on their heads, before Flores gets plowed over by an antelope, and our hero rides off on the beast through a crowd of dancing prisoners in orange jumpsuits into a sunset of animated, Pop-Tart cats making double rainbows in the sky.

To those who don’t spend enough quality time on such sites as YouTube (GOOG) or Reddit, the above scene might sound like a fever dream. In fact, it’s a television spot for VitaminWater that combines a number of popular Internet memes. The term is derived from genetics, describing the evolution of ideas and cultural phenomena by natural selection. These days, meme is the catchall for freely copied and altered tidbits of amusing online content, from animations and photo captions to viral videos that inspire a flood of parodies. (Think Honey Badger or S- -t Girls Say.)

Within weeks, most fade to oblivion, but those with endurance make the leap to the commercial world. Properly exploited, some memes can bring in anywhere from a few thousand dollars for a single licensed broadcast of a popular video to six figures for an integrated marketing campaign based around a meme. “These things … are the new Mickey Mouse or Bart Simpson,” says Ben Lashes, a former musician based in Portland, Ore., who manages popular memes such as Keyboard Cat (a piano-playing feline), Nyan Cat (the above-mentioned Pop-Tart/cat hybrid), and Scumbag Steve (a photo of a sleazy-looking man whose real name is Blake Boston).

In the past two years, Lashes has helped clients license memes to brands such as Nike (NKE), Nokia (NOK), Wonderful Pistachios, and Lipton (UL) Brisk Iced Tea, which uses the Scumbag Steve photo in a new Web ad. Lashes and Nyan Cat creator Chris Torres just signed with Jakks Pacific (JAKK), which makes Hello Kitty, among other toys, to license plush versions of Torres’s creation this fall. These are “not just dumb things on the Internet,” says Lashes. “These are the next huge pop culture characters.”

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