If you’ve thought about marketing with memes, you’re not alone. Memes are everywhere for good reason. They’re engaging and relatable. For businesses, memes are a shortcut to connection. We can say, “Look! I like Schitt’s Creek too! My offer is relevant to you.” The meme-ification of marketing is treated as the natural next step in online marketing, but it raises some ethical questions that are worth considering.

When Marketing with Memes Gets Tricky

If we think about marketing with memes as a shortcut, we need to consider what that shortcut is bypassing. In this case, nuances in power dynamics get ignored. Marketing with memes can be problematic when when:

  • Children are involved. When everything is so shareable, it’s easy to forget that children are humans who are rarely given the chance to consent to the ways their images are used. And they’re the ones whose adult lives and choices will be shaped by these ridiculous records of them on the internet. We all love the corn kid, but how will all this affect his job prospects someday? We just don’t know.
  • It devolves to digital blackface. If this term is new to you, I recommend reading this article. The relevant piece here is that white people using reaction memes and GIFs of Black people mirrors 19th-century blackface. White people darkened their skin and performed skits making fun of Black people with exaggerated caricatures. It feels like the absolute bare minimum for white people to check in and question their motives before marketing with memes of Black people. 
  • Legality becomes an issue. Using someone else’s likeness to promote your business isn’t just ethically questionable; it can be illegal. Would you believe that Keyboard Cat is litigious? This whiskered internet sensation is trademarked. The trademark’s owner has won court cases for infringement.

Two Takeaways for Ethical Marketing

So where does this leave us with ethical marketing with memes? Memes don’t leave a lot of room for consent, a pillar of trauma-informed marketing. At the end of the day, the people in memes are real people. Before you use them in your marketing, check in. Make sure you’re being sensitive to power dynamics. If you can’t get someone’s consent to use their likeness in your marketing, that might mean it’s time to find another way to connect with your audience.

Remember how I said that memes are a shortcut to connection? Instead of taking shortcuts, trauma-informed marketing asks us to be intentional in the way we approach people, including the people in our marketing. You can reference shows you love and get excited about your offers in ways that allow your brand to shine.  You can be spicy and bold without putting a stranger’s face in your email.

Of course, there’s nuance to most things. Sharing a funny meme in your Instagram stories is probably fine. Using someone’s legally-protected likeness to market your offer probably isn’t. 

If you’ve done marketing with memes, give yourself grace and space to explore the nuances. All we can do is our best with what we know. We’ve got to give ourselves and each other space to grow. We have hope for a kinder world, and ethical entrepreneurs have a lot of power to shape it.

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