NPR’s Rachel Martin talks to New York Times technology reporter Taylor Lorenz about Michael Bloomberg presidential team’s use of memes, and Internet culture as part of its campaign strategy.


We’re going to spend the next few minutes talking about memes because the images, jokes and whatever else that spreads around the Internet, yes, sometimes it’s ridiculous, but it’s also serious money, and the people who make them have a ton of influence. This week, former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s presidential campaign surprised a lot of people by trying to capitalize on this influence. I asked New York Times technology reporter Taylor Lorenz to explain.

TAYLOR LORENZ: Basically, you know, the Bloomberg campaign worked with this newly formed company called Meme 2020 that consists of some of the largest memers (ph) on Instagram to run a series of sponsored posts kind of humanizing Bloomberg and promoting his campaign for president.

MARTIN: So, I mean, are these really influential accounts? Who’s behind them?

LORENZ: Yeah, absolutely. You know, these are some of the most influential memers on the Internet. You have the CEO of Jerry Media. You also have other memers like Tank Sinatra, Grape Juice Boys, Middle Class Fancy. These names might sound absurd to people, but they all have millions and millions of followers each and very sort of powerful ability to shape culture.

MARTIN: What kind of money are we talking about here?

LORENZ: A lot of money. Campaigns like this do not come cheap. These meme pages are essentially small media companies, and buying ad space on them – especially for something sort of controversial, like a political ad – is going to cost a lot. I would estimate that, you know, this was an over a million-dollar spend. You know, like I said, these memers already charge exorbitant fees just for posting sponsored content. So, you know, for them to come out and essentially endorse a specific candidate definitely costs a pretty penny.

MARTIN: Can you give us an example of what some of these memes are, what they do? What’s the message? What are they paying for?

LORENZ: Yeah. So the memes all follow a similar format. It’s essentially fake direct messages from Michael Bloomberg’s account. This is kind of a well-known format already in the meme community to kind of spoof DMs with someone in a satirical way. So a lot of these, you know, DMs just are, essentially, fake DMs from Michael Bloomberg saying that he wants to look cool, saying that his granddaughter told him about these meme accounts and saying that he has, you know, billions of dollars to give the memers.

It’s kind of meant to be tongue-in-cheek. I think it’s so cringy that it’s – you know, they’re hoping that it will read as endearing. And, you know, Bloomberg’s campaign, even an aide said, you know, they wanted it to be self-referential. And, you know, the goal was to create this kind of self-aware, ironic personality around Bloomberg.

MARTIN: (Laughter) That’s so interesting. The reaction – what’s the reaction like to these meme-slash-ads?

LORENZ: There’s been quite a widespread reaction on the Internet, not all positive (laughter). I think it’s been a little controversial, but it’s definitely gotten people talking. A lot of other memers, especially teenage memers, were excited about the opportunity of potentially working with a presidential campaign. So I think you see people on both sides.

MARTIN: I mean, what do we know about the people who are running social media for the Bloomberg campaign and the overall strategy?

LORENZ: Yeah. Well, they’re very embedded in the tech world. You know, the Bloomberg campaign has aggressively courted people from the tech and digital media communities. You know, just the fact that they’re working with all of these memers, I think, is a testament to that. They hired Eric Kuhn, who’s known as the first social media agent in Hollywood. And other people like Selby Drummond, who came from Snapchat is, you know, consulting on the campaign. So there’s just a lot of digital talent within the Bloomberg campaign in general. And I think that we’re just starting to sort of see that play out through campaigns like this.

MARTIN: All right. We’ll keep watching it. Taylor Lorenz of The New York Times. Thank you.

LORENZ: Thank you.


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