The Future is Here and it is Grumpy: The Monetization of Memes

The digital revolution has happened, it was televised, but it was also online, on mobile devices, social media networks, out-of-home advertisement, and even books. Some of the advances in technology that have come to pass have surpassed our wildest imaginations and connected us in ways we’ve never imagined. Others delight us in ways that make us scratch our heads; memes have taken our networks by storm.

Microcelebrities and in-jokes have gone global. Rare is the life untouched by memes and even if you don’t know their individual formal titles, you’ve probably encountered Scumbag Steve, Nyan Cat or of course– the current Queen of Internet Memes: Grumpy Cat.

We’ve all heard a story of viral success (Blair Witch Project) or a celebrity’s viral fame (Justin Bieber), after all in the last year we all heard a song sung in Korean on US Top 40 Radio thanks to the phenomenal success of its music video on YouTube.

Of course, there’s also an increasingly large number of groups like Maker Studios, who specialize in monetizing YouTube, who made quite a tidy sum by jumpstarting the Harlem Shake’s success. When any piece of content on YouTube goes viral, it can start to make advertising dollars. When there is copyrighted material in those videos, copyright holders can either block or share advertising revenue.

“Harlem Shake,” was a meme made by an amateur, George Miller, but its rapid replication was driven by media and marketing professionals, led and orchestrated by three companies: Maker Studios, Mad Decent, and IAC.

The whole saga of the Harlem Shake can be found on Quartz, but what you can see is that if something goes viral on YouTube at least, it’s hard NOT to monetize it. But what about the amateur? What about the filmmaker or creator trying to get attention for their own work? What about the person whose image is being used? What can people learn from the lessons of existing memes to use if they suddenly find themselves Internet famous?

While these phenomena can people into the social stratosphere, there remains the expectation that they will rapidly fall out of the global consciousness. The success of Internet memes is not something that one considers to be lasting, or for that matter, marketable at first glance.  Yet, an increasingly large number of these memes are finding ways to monetize their sudden celebrity – earning long-term staying power, and somehow leveraging themselves online for fun and profit.

There are examples like The Annoying Orange, which has taken its online success and become apps, games and now a TV series; $h*! My Dad Says, a twitter feed that turned into a short-lived network sitcom is another. Other twitter feeds and memes make their way into the 24-hour news cycle as human-interest stories, but are generally considered to be organic – almost magical – successes by the public at large.

So what if you suddenly find yourself internet famous and want to either control the use of your work, take advantage of that success to grow into something larger or simply be able to make some money in the process as millions of people share your –or your cat’s– image.

The concept of the Meme has been around long enough to have some horror stories, including that of Blake Boston:

“It all started when Boston was 16, and his mother took a photo of him standing in a doorway in their house when they were living in Medfield. In the photo, he is wearing a puffy winter coat with a faux-fur collar and — most importantly — a fitted, flat-brimmed baseball cap on backwards. At the time, he admits he thought he was “all that,” and the tilt of the hat and hard-guy look on his face leaves no doubt.

The photo went up on his MySpace page, and then was forgotten until, for reasons no one has been able to explain, it became a viral sensation in early 2011. The photo was turned into what is known as a meme, an Internet term for a piece of media that is traded and remixed, and strangers began attaching captions to the photo, basically blaming Blake Boston for being “that guy.” And that guy was given an alliterative name: Scumbag Steve.

The meme’s captions all follow a standard format: at the top of the photo is the set-up line, then at the bottom is the wounding punch line.
When Blake discovered the meme, he was understandably upset; he fought it on the Internet, got in flame wars and ultimately made peace with it as he matured into adulthood, creating his own web presence to counter the bad.

Back to Grumpy Cat™ for a moment. Grumpy Cat™ is a real cat, her name is Tardar, and lives in Arizona. How do I know this? Because Grumpy Cat™ has an Official Grumpy Cat™ Website where Tarder’s owners release a steady stream of images and information about the Internet’s “Grumpiest Cat!”

This proactive approach by its owners is no joke; the name Grumpy Cat™ is trademarked and Grumpy Cat™’s appearances and licensing are handled by Ben Lashes, Meme Agent.

This Meme Agent has arranged for his clients to be integrated into a variety of ad campaigns such as those from Microsoft, The Pistachio Council and Toys-R-Us. He helps his clients with all the same licensing and merchandising tie-ins one would expect from any mainstream entertainment franchise.

The most notable placement of late may be Grumpy Cat™’s visit to SXSW Interactive, here covered in the Economist :

“The queue to meet Grumpy Cat stretched round the block. The frowning feline (pictured) is an online sensation, with over 1.5m unique visitors a month to her website.”

Grumpy Cat™ was brought to Austin by Friskies, who have tapped Tarder to star in their newest campaign. And why not? Their target market are people who own cats, and an established cat-celebrity is a natural fit.

Not everyone goes the “meme agent” route to success. Others, like Twitter Account @DeathStarPR  have been taking incremental steps toward larger platforms for growth.  Death Star PR started out as a Star Wars spoof twitter poking fun at the public relations industry. They took their following and translated it into a web series of the same name depicting the behind the scenes of the Empire’s spin team.

Selling subscriptions to the episodes, they were able to kickstart and create a webseries to expand their content, which is now available to watch for a $0.99 fee.

From humble beginnings, these are a few groups that have found audiences. Whether the models they are exploring are sustainable over time has yet to be seen, but it is certainly revelatory to examine how each group is surveying the landscape of opportunities that their Internet-fame has opened up.

Anyone can be famous for 15 minutes, or in the meme environment, 150 seconds. While traditional media content is now competing for mindspace with memes and an ever-expanding range of content on an ever-expanding range of platforms there are throughlines that hold true.

If you can find an audience, you can find a way to build that relationship with that audience. Whether your goals are financial, to be discovered as an artist, to support a project or simply to retain some measure of dignity against an Internet onslaught there are now examples in the space.

Here are some recommendations for social success we can learn from Grumpy Cat™, The Harlem Shake, Scumbag Steve and Death Star PR:

  • It Pays to Share. When viral videos hit the big numbers, profit sharing is possible with copyright holders, as Matter and The Harlem Shake show us. Does that mean using things without permission is no longer a grey area? Hardly. But it does mean that there are ways to monetize online success across user-generated content that riffs on the same themes and that’s exciting.
  • You Probably Won’t Be Psy. Not every video becomes Gangnam Style, but that doesn’t mean you can’t find a sustainable audience. The means to find modest budgets with a modest fanbase exist and that can keep an idea alive and spread it further, like Death Star PR.
  • Remember that fame is fickle; figure out your goals, short-term and long. Do you want to cash in like Grumpy Cat™? or do you want to build a franchise like Justin Bieber or The Annoying Orange?  What are some goals that will get you there slowly and steadily? Or what would your goal be if you got suddenly successful with your idea?
  • Reach out to people who know more than you. Are you an expert on licensing, image rights and trademarks? No? That’s why lawyers, agents and managers exist. Expertise is just a Google search and some phone calls away.

Ultimately, we may not remember Grumpy Cat™ in 30 years, at least, no more than people remember Morris The Cat. But there’s no reason that short-term fame can’t earn her Friskies for the rest of her life.  The existence of agents and companies in the meme and viral space does not mean that people will no longer find brilliant or delightful things on the Internet that aren’t planned. The maturation of the market around this content is a sign that memes have a hold on people’s attention, and that people are getting savvier about how to make that last. 


Caitlin Burns is a Transmedia Producer with Starlight Runner Entertainment and has worked on properties ranging from Pirates of the Caribbean for The Walt Disney Company and James Cameron’s Avatar, to Halo for Microsoft and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles for Nickelodeon. She is a Board Member of the Producer’s Guild of America’s New Media Council and an Advisor to the Tribeca Film Institute’s New Media Fund. Find her on Twitter: @Caitlin_Burns

Special thanks to Jeff Gomez, CEO of Starlight Runner Entertainment: @Jeff_Gomez for his editorial input into this piece.

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