The politics of popular culture: why memes are crucial in election campaigns

Image credit: Axelle B

Publicising a political campaign to target the nation is sometimes a more complex endeavour than establishing policy; assiduous work is undertaken, and great stores of money spent, in an attempt to capture the attention of voters across social media, newspapers, and television – and it can, ultimately, fail. Indeed, the Conservatives are said to have spent £1.2 million on Facebook and social media advertising for the last election, and to little avail, with the eventual loss of their parliamentary majority. With such matters of advertising, it seems youth is key; and the Tories did not target this cohort correctly. Labour, however, spread their message for free.

The rise of meme culture plays a crucial part in all modern political campaigns, and it was the young Labour supporters who particularly capitalised on this for the recent election; creating meme pages and accounts to promote the politics of the Labour party in a concise and accessible manner. Even in the 2015 election, the Milifandom campaign was critical in encouraging young voters, who possibly had never voted before, to make an effort to promote what they believed in and ultimately make it to the ballot box to vote. Even a candidate for the constituency of Cambridge had a meme page: ‘Daniel Zeichner memes for principled and never selling out teens’ was a hit among University students who wanted to prevent the re-election of a Liberal Democrat Member of Parliament.

But it is not just picture memes that play a central role: political memes include music (such as ‘Liar Liar GE2017’; a direct attempt to prevent another May-led government), and fanfiction; though our own nation may lack attractive political figureheads at this point in time, the appeal of the Canadian and French leaders, Justin Trudeau and Emmanuel Macron respectively, has sparked the questionably erotic Trudeau/Macron stories which are being written online – a creation that began on Twitter, with Corey Kindberg’s pithy remark that: “Justin always had a sweet tooth. He had a thing for French desserts. Finally. He found the one dessert he couldn't pass up – Macron”.

This is a trend that stretches back into history, too, with Blair/Bush fanfictions, Stalin/Hitler tales and Stalin/Shrek stories. The increasingly daring creations are sometimes funny; other times painful – though they consistently raise the question of where the line has to be drawn when it comes to satire. What is acceptable political comedy? Can everything be valid?

Then there are the fake election campaign videos; the rap battles between politicians; the parodies of MPs: a modern revolution in creativity that lives on the borderline between being harmless and being dangerous. Whilst such popular culture may encourage people to be involved in political activity, it could also be classed as a ridiculing of the entire democratic process, dismantling all enthusiasm for politics by reducing the activities to mere farcical spectacle. We must not forget, of course, the election scene in Blackadder, which included the ‘Standing At The Back Dressed Stupidly And Looking Stupid Party’; the colours of which have frequently been pointed out as the same as those of UKIP.

Meme culture may have played a critical role in the 2017 election, but this can come at a cost. Yes, memes are funny; a rapid way of learning key policy; and respite from the monotony of a political jargon we sometimes struggle to understand – but they can cross the line of being unacceptable very easily. Whilst capitalising on memes is a fantastic way to ensure success in an election, and in the future of one’s political campaign, it is essential to be careful: memes may be popular, but popularity is not an excuse for offensiveness. 

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