If nobody knows about a product, then it may as well not exist. The virality of the product’s memes are essential to its popularity. However sometimes the meme precedes existence. Some products are quite literally memed into existence. In that they were produced only after the concept caught fire. The canonical example is the Talk Boy – the recorder toy Kevin uses in Home Alone 2 – which was invented as a prop for the film and only produced for retail due to overwhelming demand.
Many of the most popular toys from Buzz Lightyear to Elsa from Frozen and Mickey Mouse, all started life as characters from popular movies, shows or stories. The meme to merchandise pipeline has always a significant part of Disney’s business model. With their Disneyland theme park they brought the memes to life, further leveraging their memetic assets. Today we see the popularity of the films themselves being dictated by the memes circulated on social media. Minions: The Rise of Gru went viral on TikTok with thousands of people showing up in suits to watch the movie, earning it $202 million at the box office. In contrast Morbius was widely mocked online, leading to a poor box office taking of $74 million against a budget of $75 million.
However real products, not just toys, originated as memes first in popular culture. Google Earth was inspired by a program in the novel Snow Crash, used by the CIA to zoom into different locations around the globe. The inventor of the Submarine was simply trying to build what he had read about as a boy, in Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. The idea for Uber came from a futuristic real-time map of car locations in Casino Royale, a James Bond movie. Believe it or not but the automatic cat flap activated by a cat collar didn’t exist before it was memed into existence by the popular cartoon character Dennis The Menace in The Beano.
The entertainment industry doesn’t just manifest popular products, but holds influence over whole careers. The image we have today of Wall St. bankers is actually a case of life imitating art: it wasn’t common to dress or act like Gordon Gekko until after the film Wall St came out. “All of a sudden, on trading floors there was a proliferation of suspenders [braces], slicked-back hair and Sun Tzu’s The Art of War [Gekko’s favourite book].” recalls a senior banker from that time. There was a similar case of life imitating art with the movie The Godfather, which introduced moral ambiguity to into the story of gangsters. According to Jerry Capeci a former reporter on the mob, "The film made joining the Mob palatable, even attractive, to young Italian-Americans”. This phenomenon has had massive geo-political implications. The U.S. Navy saw it’s recruitment rates balloon by a massive 500% in the year following the release of Top Gun, starring Tom Cruise, and at the age of 16, Vladimir Putin marched down to his local KGB office hoping to become a spy, after watching the movie “The Sword and the Shield”, depicting the heroic deeds of a Soviet double agent in Nazi Germany.
Perhaps the most surprising thing memed into existence is the national currency of Brazil, the Real. The new currency was introduced to combat runaway inflation of over 80%. The brainchild of 4 drinking buddies, and executed by a finance minister who by his own admission didn’t “know economics”, the currency was a masterclass in memetic engineering. The trick was to denote every price in the country in Reals (meaning both ‘royal’ and ‘real’ in Portuguese), and not change the price regardless of what was happening with inflation. So today bread was worth 1 Real and $1, tomorrow it was still Real but $2. Even though it was a fake currency, consumers got used to the Real price not changing, and began to use it to keep track of exchange. Then one day the government announced that effective immediately, the fake currency, the ‘Real’ was now real. It became the official currency of Brazil. Remarkably it was a total success: inflation ended pretty much overnight.
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