What makes an ad perform? Its memes. Ads convey meaning through the unique combination of memes they employ to trigger the desired behavior. An individual meme might be a tune, catchphrase, or style of image. Any concept that means something to someone, and can be copied (or has been copied) is a meme. For a meme to be successful it must first be noticed, accepted, and remembered. For the advertisers goal’s to be fulfilled, it must convey some payload of information that has the desired impact.
One meme can’t everything on its own, just like a single gene can’t build an organism. So they tend to band together in what are called ‘memeplexes’ - groups of memes working together symbiotically to survive. We can take them apart to study them, but they lose their effectiveness when any one component is missing. To paraphrase E.B. White: “Explaining a [memeplex] is like dissecting a frog. You understand it better but the frog dies in the process”. The following structure tends to be most effective.
Hook – The most important component that determines success. This is what grabs their attention. It could be a bold design, a controversial statement, or a celebrity appearance. Memes that don’t get attention, don’t propagate or spread, which is like a virus with a low infection rate – it’ll soon die out.
Context – If you get their attention, you won’t keep it for long. They’ll scan for signs this ad is relevant to them, and move on in milliseconds if they don’t find one. Make it clear who the ad is for, by setting a familiar scene, using words they’d use, and providing social proof for credibility.
Asset – Now you’ve convinced them to stick around, they need to be rewarded. Is there interesting news, a contrarian argument or important statistic you can reveal? People actively try to remember useful things. Memes that get remembered, persist for long enough to replicate.
Prompt – That’s a lot of information to encode, and it’s just packaging: a trojan horse for your offer. Space is limited – what one thing they should do? Make it clear, relevant, and frictionless. As Miller says, ”a caveman should be able to glance at it and immediately grunt back what you offer”.
In memetics terms, the metrics that matter for evaluating whether a meme makes a good ‘vehicle’ for your message are related to propagation and persistence. How many recipients will the meme (or memes) resonate with? What segment of the audience will it resonate most with? Might it conflict with existing memes in that group and risk rejection? Is that group dispersed or closely related and likely to spread memes contagiously? Finally is the meme memorable? Is the recipient likely to recall it at the right time? If they pass it onto another, will they do so with full fidelity, or will it be imperfectly represented and lose some of its power? The bigger the message you need to convey, the more virality and memorability you need to make it effective. Bitter medicine needs to be taken with more sugar.
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