From Darwin To Meme: How A Catchphrase Catches On

Blast Radius’ Mark Bardsley adds some marketing context to the theory of evolution and the idea of memes.

From Darwin To Meme: How A Catchphrase Catches On

Just Do It.


Doesn’t matter if you own the sneakers or personally subscribe to the runners’ school of aspiration. Nike’s cattle prod leaps from one brain to another brain to your brain with the ease of every other earworm, welcome or not, in history. That’s how memes have always worked, since long before the Internet.

Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins gave it a name: “When you plant a fertile meme in my mind (a tune, idea, catchphrase, or fashion) you literally parasitize my brain, turning it into a vehicle for the meme’s propagation in just the way that a virus may parasitize the genetic mechanism of a host cell. And this isn’t just a way of talking–the meme for, say, ‘belief in life after death’ is actually realized physically, millions of times over, as a structure in the nervous systems of individual men the world over.”

Scientists and communication theorists called it an over-simplification–an analogy used to turn the highly complex interplay of populations, collective knowledge, and social movements into a digestible nugget. And scientists and theorists don’t have much time for digestible nuggets. They deal in the currency of complex interplay.

Is there a middle ground? Ever since reading The Meme Machine and Thought Contagion, I’ve appreciated Dawkins’ reasonably fair analogy. It gives us a hook with which to understand how “Bueller…. Bueller…” became a universal high school spoof, or how reduce/reuse/recycle went from offhand tagline to lapel button of good citizenship. I am an interaction designer for a marketing agency, but I also studied evolution. So let’s take what’s useful about Dawkins’ simplification and build on it.

Marketing taps into shared ideals between brands and customers to encourage trends, ideas, and behaviors to spread. If we understand what makes a meme stick–inspire a purchase, encourage word-of-mouth, or change behavior or opinion–we can repeat that stickiness.

Dawkins suggested the “what” of memes. I’m interested in the “how”–I’m tempted to build on his gene analogy, adding to it a more complete ecosystem of ideas, broadcasters, and recipients. It’s my instinct to add context to the nugget–place, setting, environment.

Mark Bardsley

In his seminal book On the Origin of Species, Charles Darwin made the mostly correct assumption that an individual within a competitive habitat either reproduces or fails to reproduce, and thus passes on (or doesn’t pass on) its likeness to future iterations. Many years later, scientists now believe that evolution happens not just as individuals succeed or fail, but as cells and genes or groups and species succeed or fail. Our imprint, to put it otherwise, isn’t just our own. It affects the most basic building blocks of life as well as the most highly organized collectives.

Here’s how the expanded analogy lines up for marketers, ideas, and stickiness:
Gene = a catchphrase, tagline, suggestion, or image.
Cell = the marketing intention behind the catchphrase, tagline, suggestion, or image.
Individual = one human being exposed to the catchphrase, tagline, suggestion, or image.
Group = a localized set of human beings exposed to the catchphrase, tagline, suggestion, or image.
Species = a global population of human beings exposed to the catchphrase, tagline, suggestion, or image.

Marketing output (genes) begins with intention (cell) and catches on when it resonates with a single person (individual), who then spreads it to neighboring people (group), who then spill out to spread it to wider, more distant circles of groups (species). Through the process of spreading, the original marketing intent both changes and is changed by the carriers. It affects or amends the state of mind, belief, behaviors, and identity of those who carry it, and in turn, the carriers imprint their own mark onto the gene, adding depth and reinterpretation in their acceptance of it.

Fair to say that marketing changes us as much as we change marketing. Every piece of content–a catchphrase, tagline, suggestion, or image–faces evolutionary pressure at all levels, which is the very thing that morphs into success and/or iteration into success. Sometimes that iterative development happens without the intervention of marketers–customers own and direct brands these days, whether we intend it or not–and sometimes, we can see how a meme is (or is not) catching on and do our best to adjust, using evolutionary pressure as a way to shift its trajectory to a more pleasing curve.

“Fertile,” “parasite,” “propagation.” Dawkins applied some pretty vivid terms to encapsulate the “what” and “why” of Nike. And while it’s true that the spread of “Just Do It” is more complex than a straight line from one brain to another, marketers learn by adding more evolutionary “how” into their understanding of what makes for sticky gold.

Mark Bardsley is an Interaction Design Director at Blast Radius, Amsterdam.