In on the Joke: Are companies using memes as undercover marketing?

A while ago on Reddit, I saw a post on r/OutOfTheLoop of a user asking, “what’s up with all the Duolingo memes?” ( Duolingo is a free mobile app that people can use to learn new languages that’s been around since 2012. The first ever Duolingo meme originated from Tumblr in 2017. Over time, people started making even more Duolingo memes, all with the same central joke: if you don’t use Duolingo every day, the Duolingo owl will kill you.

The Duolingo Owl

One particular comment stood out to me. The user explained that they thought Duolingo created the meme as a marketing strategy. Duolingo memes were extremely popular back in early 2019, and pretty much all of Reddit’s meme subreddits were Duolingo memes. Even when you thought they’re gone for good, they’d resurface a couple days later, funnier than ever. They just wouldn’t die. By now, of course, they’re not as popular as they once were, but they lasted much longer than most other memes.

Why were Duolingo memes so popular? Why did they last longer compared to most other memes on the internet? Clever marketing. Memes are considered a form of art and are a big part of internet culture. Using memes as a form of stealth marketing is genius. Nobody likes seeings ads on their social media and news feeds. People just ignore them and move on. But when an ad is presented in the form of something else, like a meme, there’s a higher chance of people actually bothering to view it. They’re funny, and people share them with friends, which leads to more popularity. But companies have to do them right, and not make it cringey, or else people won’t care for it. Yet, cringe isn’t always a bad thing. Sometimes, cringe can be used to a business’ advantage. Take for example, Ajit Pai’s video titled “7 Things Corporations Can Do To The Internet After Net Neutrality”.

The video was created as a response to the backlash Ajit Pai got when he was in the process of enforcing net neutrality. Any Gen Z member will spot all the cringe included in the video. The video became a massive meme on the internet. People all over social media were making fun of how stupid and cringey the video was. But maybe that was the the intention of the video’s creators. Maybe the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) marketing team knew that it had the potential of becoming a meme, and they tried to make it as cringey as it could possibly be. A still from beginning of the video was the most memed part. Just looking at it makes me laugh. Is this what adults think is “hip” and “cool” with today’s kids? Maybe it is, or maybe it’s just Ajit Pai thinking that dressing up in a Santa suit while wearing 3D glasses and holding a fidget spinner and nerf gun makes him appeal to young kids.

Ajit Pai, in all his glory

On April 1st of 2019, Duolingo announced a new product called the “Duolingo Push” with a video on their official YouTube channel. In the video, people who ignored Duolingo’s daily reminders to practice would be stalked by a giant plush toy Duolingo owl to “subtly” remind them to continue their language learning lessons on Duolingo. The video,(obviously intended as a parody of the Duolingo memes), got over 3.5 million views. The product was also never released because it was just an April Fool’s joke with the sole intention of acknowledging the popularity of the Duolingo memes.

I think it’s a bit of a stretch. I think that the Duolingo Push may have been the company’s recognition of the Duolingo memes in order to encourage more memes to be made, but I don’t think they started it.

-Juan boffi, sas senior
The Duolingo Push

Some people also theorize that Netflix used meme marketing with its movie ‘Bird Box’. ‘Bird Box’ memes were all over Twitter and Instagram when the Netflix Original came out in December. ‘Bird Box’ memes were spreading like wildfire on the day it came out. For a movie to gain popularity that quickly, that hundreds of people start making memes about it on social media, it must have been started by Netflix. If Netflix did use memes as a marketing strategy, they succeeded, as ‘Bird Box’ was Netflix’s most watched Netflix Original movie from October 2018 to September 2019, with 80 million people watching it.

A Birdbox meme

The reviews for ‘Bird Box’ aren’t that great, by critics and audience. Bird Box currently holds a 63% critic score and 57% audience score on Rotten Tomatoes. On Metacritic, the movie holds a 51/100 critic score and 5.8/10 user score. Yet, it was Netflix’s most watched Original for 11 months. Why? Because of Netflix’s clever marketing. With good advertising, any product can be sold, no matter the reviews.

Bojack Horseman even commented on this. In Season 6 of the Netflix Original show, ‘Princess,’ Carolyn makes a meme out of Mr. Peanutbutter to promote their new TV series, and labels it “Sad Dog”. The meme spreads like wildfire across the internet, and the show becomes immensely popular.

Sad Dog

With people nowadays swiping past every ad they see, and downloading ad blockers for when they browse the web, businesses are going to have to resort to other measures to promote their products. Whether it’s making and spreading memes on social media like Duolingo and Netflix supposedly did, or making something so memeable you let the internet do the rest of the work for you, like the FCC seemingly did, it’s evident that marketing has truly evolved to adapt to new generations of human beings.

Author: Suren

Suren Seth is a senior, and this is his second year writing for The Eye, and his fourth year in SAS. He's from Plano, Texas, and has been living in Singapore for 9 years. He's interested in film, media, and entertainment. He can be contacted at

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