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Morbius, Minions, and the Power of Memes in Marketing Movies

Memes are a fundamental part of internet culture. One day someone makes a meme, and it catches enough eyes to spread like wildfire across the web. If a meme gains traction, it practically rules the online space for weeks, and you can’t use social media without coming across it.

As a result, meme culture is often used for marketing purposes, whether audience-led or by the design of marketers. Some meme campaigns succeed and result in a spike in sales. Others, not so much. So, let’s look at some interesting cases of meme marketing in movies.

The Connection Between Movies and Memes

Movies have always been memed. When a flick comes out, movie-goers flock to see it, and opinions spread on Twitter, TikTok, YouTube, Reddit, and other platforms. And a solid way to cement the movie in pop culture is the ability to turn scenes into memes. It also helps that it’s super easy to make your own meme—with people often using popular meme generators to create theirs.

Think about it. The first movie in the Lord of the Rings trilogy came out in 2001, and you can still find fresh memes based on Sean Bean’s famous line: “One does not simply walk into Mordor”. The same goes for the Matrix, Toy Story, and pretty much any Star Wars movie ever. These all had popular memes come out of them. And when you see the memes going around, they sometimes spark the urge to watch or rewatch the movie. Memes produce interest.

And, yet, memes always seemed to be an afterthought. Something that came after people saw the movies, usually spawned by the audience itself.

But companies seem to be grasping how well memes could work for them as a marketing strategy and have begun to dip their toes in meme marketing. Let’s look at two examples of recent memes used in marketing with varying success—Sony’s Morbius and Illumination’s latest Minions flick.

A Bad Example of Meme Marketing: Morbius

It’s undeniable that the superhero genre has ruled the last few decades in movies. That’s why you see at least several superhero films and shows coming out each year—people are interested.

But what happens when studio companies overestimate the interest? Pumping out the same story with a different cast without putting any effort into developing a good plotline leads to fans calling that out and keeping their money. That’s what happened with Morbius.

The audience saw it as a poor choice movie all around—poor choice of plot, cast, everything. Then the internet did what it does best, and made memes of the movie to mock it.

Morbius was off to a poor start already, interest-wise, since its release was delayed several times. And it didn’t take long for people to start making memes after the movie finally hit theaters.

Only these memes didn’t generate buzz for people to see the movie but to stay away, and the film did poorly at the box office. No one wanted to contribute to such a bad movie.

At one point, the audience played the Uno reverse card with the Morbius memes, and instead of commenting on how bad the movie was, they claimed it was a cinematic masterpiece. That sparked a wave of praise for the film, even branding it a cult classic. And thanks to all the memes circulating the web, Sony, the company behind the movie, misconstrued the memes and got duped into re-releasing it.

Sony believed there was so much interest for the movie that it organized an entirely new release. And, guess what? No one showed up to watch Morbius. Again.

A Good Example of Meme Marketing: Minions

The latest Minions film, called Minions: The Rise of Gru, succeeded where Morbius failed. With the Minions flick, the memes came before the release of the movie itself, managing to generate hype and interest, which translated into sales.

As soon as the first trailer dropped in theaters, people started to generate memes about it and post them online, using established meme formats. It’s easy enough to join in, with there even being Android apps to help you make memes. Then Minions became more heavily featured in the memes once The Lyrical Lemonade Trailer dropped. The song playing over the film’s trailer gave internet users a push in the meme direction, and the web became flooded with Minions memes.

TikTok was brimming with clips of people doing Minion-related things while the song was playing. It only helped the meme spread even more that at that point.

Minions had also collaborated with iHOP. So people went there to take footage of eating the Minion-themed food with the song playing on top, adding layers to the meme.

Then, the meme evolved again with people dressing up like Minions, and ultimately the meme reached its final form at the end of June, close to the film’s official release date, 1 July.

Minion enthusiasts started sharing videos of their plan to see the movie dressed in formal wear, particularly suits. That turned into a TikTok trend that went viral, and suddenly, swarms of people began posting clips of going to theaters to see the movie wearing suits.

The trend grew fast on TikTok, and everyone seemed to want to participate. People who didn’t know how to make memes before, learned so they could join in the trend. All that led to the movie making bank at the box office—unlike Morbius, which tanked.

Naturally, people started trying to one-up others, which grew to a level of shenanigans that led to some theaters banning groups in suits from seeing the flick. All good things must end, as they say.

So, What Have We Learned?

Meme marketing can be successful if done right, but telling right from wrong is a challenge. Above all, companies that attempt to use meme marketing to create interest and generate sales need to understand one thing. Internet users can tell the difference between a forced meme and one that grows organically. So when companies try to push one, users tend to push back.

Sometime after the Morbius re-release and the web being flooded with Morbius memes, Jared Leto, the movie’s main actor, joined in the memes. At that point, some declared the meme dead and moved on to another.

You can’t force a viral trend, and those are the ones that are usually the most successful. And, even then, they don’t last forever. Take the success of the memefication of the Minions movie.

So many people went to see it simply to participate in the newest meme trend that ruled the internet. Despite that proving lucrative for the studio, ultimately, it was the same meme-generating users who ruined the trend by taking it a step too far.

Meme for Marketing or Meme for Fun, Just Meme Away

The success of meme marketing seems to be determined by a coin toss—land right side up and reap the rewards, or the wrong one and fail. Whether it’s a hit or miss is up to who your audience is.

For now, at least, it doesn’t seem like you can predict the success of a meme and therefore meme marketing.

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