The evidence was mounting against Pikachu, but to play devil’s advocate, I must point out that viral memes can indeed appear from nowhere, and yield financial benefits. The “Who killed Hannibal?” meme, for example, featuring comedian Hannibal Buress, was not caused by any news event. Shortly after this meme went viral, we see a spike in people searching Hannibal’s name, which no doubt provided at least some modest boost to his career.
However, there are crucial differences between Hannibal and Pikachu. Hannibal was not about to launch a new film or special, so if this meme was a marketing campaign, it was poorly timed. Also, while Hannibal is probably doing OK for himself, he doesn’t have the marketing resources of Warner Bros., which had set out to build a new film-and-merchandise franchise. “Who killed Hannibal?” originates from The Eric Andre Show, a low-budget series produced by Adult Swim. Detective Pikachu had a large marketing budget, featuring promotional tie-ins with Burger King, Nintendo and 7-Eleven.
“Who killed Hannibal?” looks to be one of the many examples in which a screenshot from a piece of pop culture is taken by the internet and catapulted into viral meme status. This is what makes it so appealing to use memes for stealth promotions: Given that so many memes draw from pop culture already, who would ever notice?
Stealth internet marketing is a thriving industry. It doesn’t take much searching to find companies you can pay to astroturf social media posts. This kind of small-scale manipulation has been around for a while, but my hunch is that in recent years these companies have graduated to a new level of mass-meme marketing.
Meme-based marketing campaigns might be a gamble, but with high risk comes high reward. Let’s talk hypotheticals: $100,000—probably just a tiny fraction of Detective Pikachu’s marketing budget—would be enough to fund a small team to work on such a campaign for two months. Facebook advertising can cost $10 per 1,000 views. If the Surprised Pikachu meme ended up getting 90 million views (which is probably a vast underestimate), that equates to $900,000 worth of publicity.
So, was Surprised Pikachu an ad campaign? If so, was Angela—the original poster—involved in this scheme from the get-go, or had her good idea been borrowed by others and boosted for profit? (I reached out to her via Tumblr, but got no response.) I’m afraid I can offer no final verdicts on these questions. I am a mere data detective—I live by the statistician’s code, and will never claim anything with 100 percent certainty.
However, I will say that I am 95 percent confident that this meme was the most successful stealth marketing campaign of 2018.
But, you know, I could be wrong.
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