21 Apr 2015

New Meme Sees Animals Shoulder To Shoulder

Even its most infrequent users will know that the internet is no stranger to animal photos. Some animals have made a comfortable living from this fact, such as ‘Grumpy Cat’, whose trademark frown has created a viral empire worth $100 million.

grumpy cat

With videos of cats dressed as sharks, seals stealing fish and dogs failing to catch tennis balls filling our news feeds, you’d think there’d come a point when people had just had enough of ordinary animals. But if ever there were a time that an animal just minding its own business ceased to entertain and engage, it is yet to arrive.

The latest sensation is nothing to do with a protest against intensive farming, as the headline might suggest. Alas, Reddit this week has been full of photos of people with an animal on their shoulder. Think Long John Silver, except replace the pirate with a random person and the parrot with a little turkey.

According to Buzzfeed, a guy took a photo two years ago of a baby turkey on his shoulder. Now, just a week ago some upstart posted a photo challenge, the exact quote used:

“I’ll raise your shoulder turkey. Shoulder chicken.”

ill raise your shoulder turkey

And so the dominoes of virality began to cascade.

The success of this photo, probably due to its unusual combination of features, inspired other people with chickens to get involved, but with inevitable escalation.

Some put a chicken on their head.

head chicken

Some tried to claim they were there way before this craze was even big.

original chicken on shoulder

And some made the most of possessing multiple chickens.

many chickens on shoulder

Then the big players got involved. Under the guise of ‘not being able to find a chicken’ these people with exotic animal friends took their chance to let the world know.

eagle leopard tortoise

Any viral marketer has to try and answer why a trend like this should take off, with various contributions making the front page of Reddit (no mean feat). The answer has to incorporate uncertainty. Few could have predicted that the specific content (a chicken on someone’s shoulder) would be so influential, however the device by which it spread is universal.

We’ve seen #neknominate, #nomakeupselfie and an endless trail of covers of Let It Go. What links these trends and the animals on shoulders is the opportunity for originality amidst an existing conversation around a simple, accessible base idea.

Escalation is fundamental to human interest. The fact that people were able to make subtle but interesting changes to the original idea kept the audience engaged, and the competitive aspect of this escalation motivated potential contributors to weigh-in. Put this way you can see how virality works like a virtuous circle.

So is this virtuous circle something brands can harness? Cancer Research managed to take ownership of #nomakeupselfie, but this isn’t something you can imagine BAE Systems achieving any time soon. The secret ingredient is authenticity. The ‘conversation’ about animals on shoulders was allowed to happen precisely because is didn’t seem to be contrived. Authenticity is the grease that overcomes hesitancy about getting positively involved. As far as their content’s concerned, brands who appear to contrive a fun and pointless tone surrender all authenticity and often get trolled.

So, there’s a fair amount to learn from the animals on shoulders. Authenticity requires understanding more than just that example though. It’s only through understanding the whole landscape of viral ideas and how they’re received that you can seamlessly join the conversation. If done well, you can even bring in a brand message, as is our livelihood here at Don’t Panic.

Read more:
Grumpy Cat’s empire
A rebuttal of Grumpy Cat’s alleged worth
Video: Cat on a hoover with a duck