By Denise Brunsdon JD, MBA; GCI Counsellor, Digital Public Affairs
Unscripted campaign moments are rare but impactful, as seen last week in the forms of the Duffy trial and the angry Harper supporter who lashed out at reporters. Though both stories generated the kind of negative coverage opposition parties want to see, the latter had a more ideal news cycle – the incident itself, followed by a second wave of new story angles, in this case the public’s response.
In both politics and public opinion, we call a second wave of coverage the story “getting legs”. When that second wave is public response in the form of mocking online memes, those legs can be extra deadly (from the perspective of the parody target, anyway).
Why I detest the term “meme”
The term “internet meme” has bothered me since its inception several years ago. Offline, the term “meme” is defined as “an element of a culture or system of behaviour passed from one individual to another by imitation”
However, “internet meme’s” have morphed the original definition to simply be a way to label a type of humour or joke, usually something that was funny because it was derivative of a social practice or a prior joke.
Unfortunately, just as the word “meme” was a bit too cerebral of a description for young people before the internet, so too is the phrase “internet meme”—too exclusionary to older generations now.
So I reject the social media community’s obsession with so-called memes and instead choose to look to the root of what makes a good meme. Memes are jokes, and popular memes are good jokes.
Sure some so-called internet-memes are genuinely only funny if you followed the development of the joke – i.e. its derivatives over time – that’s not truly necessary for most internet jokes. In my opinion, the funniest joke about the angry Conservative was the comparison to Grandpa Simpson, a pre-internet TV character. Most of what media and pundits talk about in terms of online memes are truly just funny, usually image-based jokes. So with this call for clarity off my chest, let’s dig into a few lessons from the recent #angryoldguy.
How campaigns should approach humour
As a general rule, don’t. We live in a day where politics is overly sanitized and both politicians and political staff are subject to high standards for personal seriousness and political correctness. These qualities tend to be the height of un-funny. So right away campaign rooms playing around with humour is like mixing oil and water.
That said, it can be done, usually by hiring professionals, and usually less partisan writers. Scott Feschuk is a great example of this. He’s one of the funniest people in the world. He is also a writer, and for a brief time, he wrote for Paul Martin. During one of Paul’s campaigns Feschuk wrote an unparalleled funny blog about traveling on national tour. The blog made fun of campaigns, politics, politicians, Paul, and everything in between.
On this same campaign I did not write a funny blog, because – though I was managing PR and communications for the Liberals in BC, a role that could have included humourous blogging – I did not have a blog because I was a stressed out, overly intense young political staffer who was deeply unfunny. So again, I would emphasize that campaigns should avoid attempting humour. And if they do, they should try to hire it from outside. Because when politicos take their politically obsessed worldview and attempt to make online jokes, it’s likely to result in something like this, which is awkward for everyone. And then the media makes fun of this bad joke, and then things gets even more awkward.