Most of the work in marketing is focused on how to make things more memorable, or maximize their chances of being shared. For example the KFC brand is distinctive, and backed up by repeated investment in advertising, so customers are more likely to think of them when they’re hungry for fried chicken. When they messed up ordering and inverted their letters to FCK in an apology ad, it was a calculated bet that customers would find it funny and share the story, turning a potentially negative news story into positive word of mouth.
However there exists a class of problems where it would be helpful to be able to do the opposite: to make people forget, and neutralize any attempts to share the information. The SCP Foundation (a collaborative-writing wiki project) defines Antimemes as “any piece of information which you wouldn't share with anybody, like passwords, taboos and dirty secrets”. For example KFC’s famous secret recipe of 11 herbs and spices is an antimeme, which the company goes to great lengths to protect. The New York Times reported the recipe “is locked in a company safe and treated as a closely guarded trade secret. The ingredients are said to be known only to a handful of employees who have signed confidentiality pledges.”
How KFC protects its secret recipe is instructive in terms of the steps you can take to protect any piece of information you don’t want to get out.
Analog over digital: The recipe is reportedly hand-written on a piece of paper by Colonel Sanders himself; there are no known copies, digital or otherwise. Modern technology makes it easier to copy and share things instantly, and can be more easily comprimised.
Compartmentalization: No one supplier gets the full recipe, for example half of the product is produced by Griffith Laboratories before it is given to McCormick to add the second half. The chances of multiple sources being comprimised at once are far lower than a single source.
Legal Protection: The Colonel chose not to patent the recipe because patents are public, and competitors could copy them once it expired. However KFC makes its employees and vendors sign NDAs (Non-Disclosure Agreements), so they risk being sued for damages should the recipe get out.
Social Taboo: Everybody who works at KFC is aware of the company lore, and are aware they’d be harming the friends they made at the company if it leaked. We don’t grant the same respect we give to whistleblowers to people who spoil secrets or put the ‘tribe’ at risk: they’re socially ostracised.
However “information wants to be free” as the saying goes, so what can a company do to limit its spread when an idea inevitably does get out? What if the idea is something you don’t control, but when exposed to it people are less likely to buy your product or take a desired action? For example sometimes watching a YouTube video or Netflix documentary on the living conditions and slaughter practices of chickens is enough to turn people vegan. If KFC faced a scandal what could they do to limit the damage?
Amplify Noise: In the legal profession, there’s the practice of doing a ‘document dump’ during disclosure. Sensitive information that could aid the prosecution is buried amongst thousands of irrelevant documents, forcing a high burden of legal costs to sort through all the paperwork.
Make it Boring: It’s common practice in government to name committees something boring so that nobody will look too closely at it or join the session, as parodied by “In The Loop” with the ‘war’ committee, which was given the obscure name of the “Future Planning Committee”.
Better Ideas: In “There is no Antimemetics division” a book from the SCP universe, they claim ideas can be killed “with better ideas”. This is something that’s common practice in journalism, where the object of a scandal might trade the journalist an even bigger scandal in return for killing the story.
Decrease Novelty: James Bond may be the archetypal spy in popular culture, but in reality he’s the opposite of what you’d want. Real life spys try to blend in and be as unassuming as possible. The human brain is hardwired to notice novelty, so anything that seems normal can hide in plain sight.
These techniques matter, because even a slight change in narrative can make a huge difference in terms of an idea’s evolutionary fitness. How far an idea spreads and how long it gets remembered can be purposefully engineered. This is part of what a good PR firm can do for you: they’re memetic engineers. They don’t just get positive news stories out there and increase the chances of them spreading, but they can also counter the ill effects of bad news stories and limit the damage.
Antimemetics Division Hub
HOW KFC KEEPS ITS BIGGEST SECRET A SECRET
In the Loop (2009) Peter Capaldi: Malcolm Tucker
KFC's apology for running out of chicken is pretty cheeky
The secret lives of MI6’s top female spies
There Is No Antimemetics Division