The Money’s in the Meme

On March 27th, a video of a twelve-year-old boy yodeling at the end of an Illinois Walmart aisle went viral. Since then, the star of the video, Mason Ramsey—now known colloquially as the “Walmart yodeling boy”—has been invited to appear on Ellen, performed at Coachella on April 13th, and made his debut at the Grand Ole Opry on April 14th. Predicting whether or not a video will go ‘viral’ is a largely futile exercise, but, when a prediction goes right, there’s money in the pipeline for the many products that can associate itself with these newly minted memes.

The song Ramsey sings in Walmart is Hank Williams’ “Lovesick Blues,” released in 1949 and a chart-topper in its own right, but its peak of popularity had long since passed—until the Walmart video came along. Ramsey’s rise to popularity has brought Williams’ crooner back into the public eye, and in April the song hit #4 on Spotify’s Global Viral 50 music list. The popularity of the video has also presented an invaluable publicity opportunity to Walmart. On Ellen DeGeneres’ eponymous show, Walmart awarded Ramsey a $15,000 scholarship. Additionally, they staged a concert for him at his local Walmart on April 11th, streaming it for free across the country. Using the hashtag #WalmartYodelBoy, viewers could tweet to see their thoughts broadcasted through the entire livestream.

It isn’t difficult to remember other instances of this phenomenon; companies are increasingly able to harness the attention gained from a viral video or meme for business purposes. Last April, Carter Wilkerson, a high school student from Nevada, tweeted at Wendy’s, asking how many retweets he needed to get the fast-food giant to award him a year of free chicken nuggets. Wendy’s replied that they would grant his wish if he garnered eighteen million retweets. Although Wilkerson never hit 18 million, his tweet became the most retweeted of all time, and he also received the nuggets from Wendy’s. Nonetheless, whatever Wendy’s sacrificed in free chicken was returned many times over in positive publicity. Moreover, Wendy’s donated $100,000 to the Dave Thomas Foundation, an organization created by Wendy’s founder and dedicated to finding permanent homes for foster care children.

However, not all publicity is good publicity. Sometimes, viral videos or memes can exacerbate a major PR mistake. For instance, the infamous Pepsi commercial starring model Kendall Jenner featured Jenner making peace with a police officer over a can of Pepsi, and it instantly became the source of mockery on a bevy of different media platforms. In this sense, memes prolonged an already embarrassing moment for the company.

‘Viral’ content can be a huge publicity boon for companies who play their cards right. By putting on a concert and cutting a scholarship check for “Little Hank,” Walmart has garnered invaluable marketing potential. Nevertheless, the power of publicity is a two-sided coin, and in the digital age, companies must be cognizant of and vigilant in maintaining their public presence more than ever.