A rather well designed hoax made the social media rounds this July: a web page, seemingly run by the Shell Oil Company, announced a contest to help promote the company’s Arctic drilling campaign. Visitors could use an ad generator to write the slogan of their choice over a series of arctic photos, each ending with the words “Let’s go!” The result? Trolling on a mammoth scale. Ad after ad gushed in criticizing Shell’s arctic designs. These ranged from the clever (“You can’t run your SUV on ‘cute,’” superimposed over a close-up of cuddling polar bears), to the scathing (“We’d drill a crippled orphan’s spine if there was some oil in it,”) to the endearingly nerdy (‘But everything changed when the fire nation attacked,” showing a martial-looking oil rig advancing on an icy shore.) It was a joy to scroll past ad after ad, watching the collective wit of the internet take on poor corporate judgment. Shell’s inability to acknowledge the content of the user-generated ads seemed like a metaphor for their inability to acknowledge the effects of their arctic drilling on the environment.
As it turned out, however, the crowd-sourced ad campaign was not a corporate misstep. It was an elaborate ruse constructed by Greenpeace and the Yes Men to raise awareness about Shell’s plans, and generally give the company grief. There has been debate as to whether or not the fake ad contest worked as activism, but the gallery of fake ads does still work as a powerful piece of political art. It does so in part because of the aesthetic beauty of the repeating photographs, the unified pallet of whites, grays, blues, and watery greens spread across the screen like a digital quilt. But it derives its political power from the genre of the meme itself.
Merriam Webster’s defines a meme as “an idea, behavior, style, or usage that spreads from person to person within a culture,” but on the internet it has taken on a more specific connotation with the help of sites like meme generator. Online memes usually take the form of words fitted to a particular syntactical construction over a matching image. There’s the “I don’t always” meme based on the tagline of Dos Equis commercials. (“I don’t always drink beer, / but when I do, I prefer Dos Equis,” morphed into “I don’t always talk to art students, / but when I do, I order large fries,” or “I don’t always do laundry, / but when I do, it’s because I ran out of socks.”) There’s the Philosoraptor, an ink drawing of a pondering Velociraptor asking two-part questions such as, “If money is the root of all evil, / then why do they ask for it in church?” or “What if Pinocchio said / my nose will not grow?” Most of these memes have no political point whatsoever, and many of their iterations can be nasty, dull, or only intelligible by a small group of friends. But they are uniquely suited for political expression because they allow a large number of people to attach their individual experiences to a culturally recognized symbol.
This can work by using pop-cultural references to make a political point. “So you support a traditional Christian marriage?” asks Condescending Wonka, “Tell me more about the relationship Jesus had with his wife.” You could say the same thing in a tweet or Facebook status update, but your argument wouldn’t carry the cultural weight of Gene Wilder’s eyeroll. There’s a certain humorous catharsis in seeing our collective experiences typed back to us in white letters over the faces of our pop cultural icons, as when, after the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the Affordable Care Act, Ned Stark warned, “Brace yourselves, everyone on Facebook is about to become a constitutional scholar.”
Other memes, like the fake Shell ad generator, function entirely to make a social or political point. One notable example is Privilege Denying Dude. This began as a tumblr started by one woman, but it allowed many more woman (and men) to satirize the smug statements they’d heard from the privilege denying dues in their own lives by typing them over the smug smirk of a generic white male model. (“Your idea sounds so much better when I rephrase it,” read one notable example.)
Memes like this one illustrate exactly how the personal is political. Anyone visiting the tumblr or generating memes could see that she was not alone in facing dismissive condescension when she tried to speak her mind. It even offered an opportunity for real-world solidarity. When the stock photographer responsible for the original image objected to its use, a male ally stepped up to be the new smug face of Privilege Denying Dude.
Memes like this one are powerful because they show a mass of unique individuals rallying around a particular cause or experience—the internet equivalent of a diverse crowd gathered in a square. It is the form itself that suggests this diverse unity by grafting individually created statements into repeating syntaxes and onto repeating images. These memes are the visual inverse of a Diego Rivera mural. Instead of one hand suggesting many, many hands uphold one theme.