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How Meme Marketing Works for Films (and How it Doesn’t)

By: Renzo Guevara

man doing meme marketing

Memes are an integral part of internet culture. Most of what goes viral on a daily basis are the types of content that don’t take itself too seriously. All of that visibility has the potential to turn almost anything into a massive hit. With the cutthroat world of box office profits today, sometimes the best way to advertise a film is to make fun of it. 

The massive potential a viral post has to reach thousands, if not millions, of people should not be underestimated. A trending post holds so much value, possibly more than a well-made ad. Social media being the juggernaut that it is with billions of people using it daily, there’s no denying how engraved it is in everyone’s lives.

According to a study conducted by YPulse, 75% of millennials share memes, and 38% follow meme accounts on social media.
Once someone makes a meme, and it catches enough attention, it’ll spread all across online platforms to the point that it would be hard to avoid. Because of this, meme culture is often integrated into marketing campaigns. The goal is to stand out and be noticed, isn’t it?

HAHA that’s so funny!

Movies have always been a large part of meme culture. It helps solidify its place in pop culture for years to come regardless if it was a good or bad product. The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, one of the most critically acclaimed products of the cinema, is still one of the main drivers of internet jokes today. The result? The franchise continues to be relevant to the point that it has a brand-new TV series.

Minions: The Rise of Guru is a film that was recently released earlier this year with massive success bringing home a worldwide box office earning of over $890,000,000 from a budget of just $80,000,000. Given that this is the fifth entry in a franchise that started back in 2010, earning that much profit from a spinoff series is all the more impressive.
How was it able to achieve this? When the first Despicable Me was released more than a decade ago, fans loved the perfect mix of humor and heart that was present in the storytelling as it followed the life of an endearing villain who just wants to make his mark on the world until three children showed up in his life and did it for him. That’s the cheesy marketing pitch of it but, if there was one thing that drove the film to absolute stardom was its side characters, namely, the minions.
These small, yellow, adorable creatures dressed up in blue overalls and lab goggles became a worldwide phenomenon almost instantly. And they did all this without even saying a single word. From merchandising to mobile games, and even their very own spinoff film, the minions easily became Universal Studios’ mascots. At some point, I even had their “banana song” as my phone’s ringtone.
When Minions: Rise of Guru was announced, no one expected it but everyone rejoiced at its existence. Gen Z, in particular, flooded social media with their unapologetic and ironic love for the franchise. It first started as a joke that people would flock to go and see the film until the “Tickets for X, please” trend started to gain traction.
It was meant to show a contrast between a film’s stereotypical audience compared to what is being presented in the image. In Minions’ case, people would expect children to be the target audience until a group of grown men, dressed in formal suits, would show up and buy the tickets for themselves. Stock images were first used until the public took it a step further and did it themselves.
The marketing team quickly rode on the momentum and labeled the entire thing as the “gentleminion” trend. “[We were] consistently hitting the FYP on TikTok by leaning into the nostalgia and connection Gen Z already had to this franchise,” said Dana Neujahr, the strategist in charge of the film’s social team.
The “meme marketing” worked because it was for a product that was already universally recognized and adored. The nature of the joke was centered on the community rallying together in support of the film. Sounds like a perfect formula right? Unfortunately, not everyone gets it right.

haha that’s so “funny”

If the marketing team behind Minions: The Rise of Guru enjoyed a community-led campaign that was celebratory in nature, the ones for the 2022 Morbius film had the exact opposite.
Released in the same year, Morbius also had its fair share in the viral spotlight of internet memes but it ended up being the unfortunate punchline of the jokes rather than the one leading them. The formula for success was there. A new entry to the massively successful lineup of live-action Marvel films established actors such as Jared Leto and Matt Smith in the cast and potential crossovers with big names such as Spider-man and Venom. The only problem was, the film wasn’t good enough to realize any of its potential.
The film was both a flop at the box office and a massive hit on social media. If there is one thing that brings people together more than loving something, it’s collectively hating almost anything on social media.
When it was starting to become clear that the box office profits weren’t going to improve any time soon, the online community coined the phrase, “It’s morbin’ time”, as a mockery of the film. Internet users doubled down on the trend claiming that Morbius was the best film of the year with the hashtag #morbiussweep”.
It got to the point where the main actor of the film himself, Jared Leto, posted a video on his official Twitter account in an attempt to ride on the joke. One quick peek at the comments will tell you just how well that went. Spoiler alert: it didn’t.
The ultimate nail in the coffin and possibly the funniest part of all of this was when Sony Pictures, the distributor behind the film, saw just how viral the memes got and decided to re-release Morbius in cinemas. The move gave it the rare prestigious title of being one of the films that flopped twice in the cinemas.
Sometimes, a large number of engagements doesn’t always mean that it is the good kind. There’s a difference between laughing at you and laughing with you—something which Sony Pictures failed to see.


Meme marketing can do wonders for any brand if done right. The key is knowing when to ride in on the trend or try to fix the mess altogether. It can mean the difference between constructing a communications campaign or needing a lot of crisis management.

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