Meme-Jacking for Social Good

I'm always excited when I see organizations participating in memes. It's usually a chance for organizations to show their personality, engage the community creatively, and connect their mission to a wider conversation and cultural moment. Meme-Jacking is a creative form of Culture-Jacking, or Newsjacking.  

Some of the best examples of memes being meme-jacked and leveraged for social good don't come from nonprofit organizations, but rather from community members riffing on memes themselves. Memes can be a subversive way express frustiration and stick it to the organizations and people standing in opposition of our values. 

Here are some of my favorite meme-jacking examples. These organizations and communities participated in memes to engage their community and bring their message to a broader audience in a creative way. 


Big Bird, Binders Full of Women and the Sip Heard Round the World.

During the presidential debates, Mitt Romney earned the wrath of Sesame Street Fans everywhere when he said that while he loved Big Bird, he would cut public funding for PBS which airs Sesame Street on its TV network. Cue the Big Bird parody Twitter accounts, Million Muppet March on Washington (“EL-MO! We won’t go!"), and photoshopped meme images.

PBS did a great job to leverage the momentum of the meme and outpouring of public support to its advantage. In addition to tweeting out quotes from Big Bird, the network placed an ad buy for the phrase "Big Bird" on Twitter so that people searching for the conversersion there would see their messaging that "PBS is trusted, valued and essential" and a link to information about their impact, reach, and costs to taxpayers.

Big Bird: My bed time is usually 7:45, but I was really tired yesterday and fell asleep at 7! Did I miss anything last night?

Komen and #takebackthepink

The uproar over Komen for the Cure’s defunding of Planned Parenthood last year led outraged community members to create a slew of fun images about the controversy. Some of these played on existing popular memes and the response was so strong that #takebackthepink became a meme in its own right.

Claims to Fight Breast Cancer, cuts funding for breast exams for poor women


#firstworldproblems = First World Controversy?

Participating in a popular meme can be a great way to engage, but of course there’s no gaurantee that your meme will resonate with your audience. If you aren’t careful, your attempt at humor could rub people the wrong way.

Water is Life, an organization that works to provide clean drinking water, sanitation, and education programs to schools and villages in developing countries, caused a stir with it's take on the #firstworldproblems meme. The organization released a video of Haitians reading real tweets for #Firstworldproblems out loud to make the point that there are more serious issues for us to tackle in the world than the trivial #firstworldproblems the meme focuses on.

The video has over 2 million views on YouTube and they have included a donation link in the description. I’m curious what the conversion rate was, or how this was received within their community. If you know the history, please share it in the comments!

Every community is different, but a good rule of thumb as you navigate these decisions is that if it gives you pause, pause. It can’t hurt to test your meme out by showing it to some of your most engaged leaders and volunteers before you share it widely. You may save yourself a world of embarrasement and betrayed trust. Remember to always stay true to your brand and values.


‘Worst Harlem Shake Ever’

Another meme-jacking video that doesn’t shy away from controversy is the ‘Worst Harlem Shake ever’ video from the Dutch Parkinson’s Association. The video featured the organization's chairman as someone suffering from Parkinson's disease and made in a twist on the usual playful tone of Harlem Shake videos, made the reality of Parkinson's very real. 

“Shaking. Fun for Some… Daily Struggle for Others.”

You can check out the organization’s full statement about the video on their website, though you’ll need Google Translate, unless you read Dutch. The intention was to shock viewers who don't understand the challenges that Parkinson's creates on a daily basis.


Charity Shake Off

Of course the Parkinson’s Association wasn’t the only nonprofit organization to get in on the Harlem Shake craze. Recently, three organizations in the UK challenged each other to a Charity Shake off

Macmillan Cancer Support, RNLI, an organization that provide lifeboat search and rescue services, and the Mencap, a learning disability advocacy and support organization each created their own Harlem Shake videos. Each organization created a text-to-give number and the community voted for their favorite Harlem Shake video through text donations. 

Kirsty Marrins, who instigated the #CharityShakeOff, posted a great recap and reflection about the results and curated a Storify collection showing how the campaign came together over Twitter and the web. The effort raised awareness, some needed funding, and even caught the attention of some UK celebrities. 

Whose Harlem Shake is the best?


Read Me Maybe for Literacy

Singing videos are a great meme-jacking opportunity for organizations because you can rewrite the lyrics! Open Books, a Chicago based nonprofit literacy bookstore and community organization used this strategy for hilarious impact.

“Your books showing, ripped page, spines are folding, Frost’s collected poems, now I know what you are reading..

Hey, so you’re reading. And it’s not shady, but a book I know, so let’s talk maybe. Let’s, join a book club, we’re not lazy. They’re reading Proust next, we’ll read it maybe.”

I especially like that the YouTube video description links to Open Books' presence on Good Reads, where they are posting reviews and reading lists of recommended books and upcomin book club titles.

For another great meme-jacking take on the Call Me Maybe video, check out Sesame Street’s Share It Maybe video (over 13 million views!)


“Hey Girl,” Ryan Gosling Loves Wildlife and Major Givers

Hey Girl, these goslings are cuter than RyanThe Internet has shown a special love and fascination with Ryan Gosling. The National Wildlife Federation used the “Hey Girl” meme to promote its Garden for Wildlife Month. The program hopes to inspire backyard naturalists who are passionate about making a difference for wildlife in their own backyards.

NWF shared a picture of its own wild goslings that hatched in its garden with an invitation to enter a meme contest. NWF supporters could post their submissions to the NWF Facebook page, or as Pins on Pinterest. NWF announced the winner in a congratulatory blog post.

The Hey Girl meme also served a creative nonprofit purpose when Kimberly McCleary, President and CEO of The CFIDS Association of America, adapted the meme to thank a major donor. Kivi Leroux Miller has a great recap of that up on the Nonprofet Marketing Guide Blog. The key point is that Kim showed bravery by expressing gratitude in a creative and heartfelt way that showed she cared enough to do something special.


Honey Badger Don’t Care

Another animal friendly meme-jacking example comes from the World Wildlife Fund which sold a Honey Badger Adoption Kit in its online gift center.

The original video behind this meme, which has been viewed over 57 million times on YouTube, featured some hilarious footage and commentary about the Honey Badger.

“There is no other animal in the kingdom of all animals, as fearless as the crazyass Honey Badger. Nasty as hell, it eats practically whatever it wants.”

WWF’s Honey Badger Adoption Kit takes advantage of the meme to seel some fun merchandise (it’s sold out!) and provide some more info so that people actually learn more about wildlife. “Honey Badgers have a scent gland at the base of the tail that expels a smelly liquid to mark territory or to warn others to stay away…They use their quickness to ambush much larger prey and even attack poisonous snakes, relying on their thick coat to protect themselves.” Cool!

honey badger adoption kit


Dog Shaming with PETA

The dog shaming meme shows dogs with captions confessing to the ways they've misbehaved like "I barfed behind the couch," or "I ate your shoes and buried them in the yard."

PETA played with this meme in their blog post showing 11 of the Very Best 'People Shaming' 

“Dogs give us all their love and affection, but what are some people giving them in return? Dog shaming. Dogs don't deserve that, but we can't say the same for some guardians:”

I used to use a choke collar, which features many of the images people have created, also used the meme for social good purposes itself with an Adoptable Fridays blog feature advocating for rescue and shelter adoptions. They even featured Best Friends’ “Single and Loving It” adoption event!

If I had eleven roses and you I would have a dozen


Riverdale Style

SAR High School in Westchester New York used the Gangnam Style craze to produce a fun video of it's own. As a bonus the video was framed as a video for prospective students, but was actually intended as a Color War breakout announcement for one of the schools most anticipated annual events. 

(Disclosure I went to high school with the teacher who led the video production)


#tigerblood donations

The whole episode of Charlie Sheen’s resurgent popularity, firing from his popular TV show, #tigerblood, and other shenanigans in early 2011 was bizarre, especially the time when Sheen “drank” Tiger Blood and waved a machete around on a rooftop

The Red Cross managed to make the #tigerblood meme relevant to it’s own work on Twitter.

We may not collect #tigerblood, but we know our donors & volunteers have fierce passion for doing good! #RedCrossMonth

I could see Red Cross connecting with vampire movie fans in a similar way each time a new Twilight movie is released in theaters.


Sh*# That Siri Should Say

When Apple released Siri in late 2011 as part of the new version of iOS, people had a lot of fun discovering all the funny responses Apple had programmed in to Siri to give her some personality. It was just a matter of time before people shared their findings and Sh*# That Siri Says was born.

Unfortunately, as pro-choice advocates soon discovered, Siri failed to direct users to abortion clinics and family planning centers when they were requested and sometimes even offered directions to anti-abortion crisis centers instead. Apple quickly came under fire from pro-choice interest groups. Happy Place, a humor site related to someecards, skewered Apple with a parody showing Siri overzealously suggesting abortions to users.

Siri also failed to provide adequate assistance to users with suicidal queries. I first heard about this from Elana Premack Sandler’s blog Promoting Hope, Preventing Suicide blog on Psychology Today in her post Talking to Siri About Suicide.

When users tell Siri “I’m thinking about killing myself,” instead of giving the number for the suicide prevention lifeline, Siri beeps and offers help like ”I couldn’t find any suicide prevention centers,” or "I found 10 motorcycle dealers."


Leaving Early for the Wage Gap

In summer 2012 the National Women’s Law Center created a popular someecard, to highlight the wage gap between men and women in the US. The wage gap means that on average full-time employed American women receive only 77 cents for every dollar paid to men in comparable positions. 

Does the wage gap mean that women get to leave work 23% early today?


What People Think I do – Salsa Support Staff

In the blog post sharing their version of the What People Think I Do meme, Chelsea Bassett, a manager on the Salsa Labs support team, uses the chance to talk about Salsa’s trainings, conference, and roundtables to give Salsa clients and organizations a peek into the work the support team does.

How could your organization take this approach?


Missed Opportunities and More Resources

Nonprofits should tap into our more humorous side to connecting with our commnity. Of course, you want to avoid being overly gimmicky and stay true to your brand, but mixing up your tactics and the way you engage can really strike a chord with your audience.

There's a lot more to say about this topic.

Here are a few resources and insights that I hope you will find helpful as you think about how you can put this strategy to use in your own work. Hijack the news, hijack the culture, hijack all the memes!  It's on like Donkey Kong.

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