Gucci meets memes

Brilliant marketing move, or a failed attempt to make the Gucci brand seem more accessible? Sarah Park questions the use of memes as art, a means of connecting with young people, and Gucci's most recent advertising strategy.

When I first saw Dazed and Confused’s article on Gucci’s new watch campaign, I was enthralled.  Here were two of my favourite things: memes and haute couture.  The idea that one of my favourite fashion brands was using memes as a marketing tool was cool and exciting, so much so that I even reposted the Dazed article on Facebook in my revelry. Upon reflection, however, I grew less and less enthused by the campaign; something didn’t quite sit right with me, and I couldn’t figure out why.  It wasn’t anything severely disconcerting, but I felt a bit put off by the whole thing.  When I read a particular caption on one of their Instagram posts, it hit me like a Marmont matelassé bag full of Supreme bricks. 

The photo in question is a ‘you vs. the guy she told you not to worry about’ meme (the official name of which Gucci didn’t even get right in their version) created in collaboration with meme maker @cabbagecatmemes, who, in the words of Gucci’s Instagram account, “tackle[s] pop culture and everyday experiences in equal measure […] all he has to do is add a line of text to the image and it becomes a viral vehicle.” 

It was with this pedestrian definition of a meme that I realised the reason why Gucci’s campaign made me feel a little uncomfortable.  Here we have a high fashion brand, known for their trademark florals, embroidery and mirrored ‘G’ logo belt buckles and loafers that adorn every trendy fashion blogger from LA to Milan, taking an innovative approach to marketing by employing a tactic that is sure to get the attention of millennials.  From afar, it seems like a great idea, and at first glance I was completely fine with it—but the thing that I found myself struggling to reconcile with was the concept of memes being used to promote a product that is relatively inaccessible to the perceived target audience.  A large portion of memes and meme pages on social media are created and are run by a demographic of ‘struggling young professionals’ or people living the ‘broke student’ lifestyle.  On average, these people do not fit the buyer bracket that Gucci typically targets, and it made me wonder who Gucci was trying to reach with this campaign.  The more I thought about it, the more Gucci’s use of memes felt like a cheap appropriation of internet culture that they didn’t quite understand, in an effort to reach younger customers. 

In a conversation with a friend, I had a difficult time trying to put this into words until I read some of the comments on various social media posts about the campaign.  One person scoffed at the ridiculous nature of it all, lamenting the idea of “the bourgeois trying to get along with the ‘people’.”  Other commenters expressed similar sentiments, saying “Wow, leave it to the fashion people to make memes snotty and pretentious” and “memes aren’t urs [sic] to commodify.”  Someone even went as far as to call the Gucci campaign “potentially the most embarrassing, normie, elitist shit [they] have seen on the web this year.” Although I wouldn’t necessarily condemn Gucci for attempting to connect with a different category of consumers, I do think that these people are on the right track.  There is something a little disappointing about an expensive high fashion brand taking a part of internet culture that often produces social commentary criticising the very thing that they are seen, by some, as representative of—a wealthy upper class that has no problem dropping £1000 on a wristwatch purely to show off to their Instagram followers.  More than this contradiction, a campaign like this that is trying so hard to be hip and relatable ends up feeling a bit forced. I find it somewhat condescending when brands try to shove an aesthetic at me that is so obviously oriented for my age cohort—it brings back that feeling of annoyance I get every time I watch absurdly unrealistic TV shows about high school that were clearly written by adults (I’m looking at you, the CW).

As a self-proclaimed lover of Gucci products, I am not trying to be classist in any way and I am not writing this to dump on people who do appreciate or buy the brand.  I just think that this watch campaign missed the mark with their inclusion of memes and how they watered down and—in a way—attempted to ‘gentrify’ internet humour.  A lot of memes are created as social commentary, frequently making fun of the oft-ridiculous tendencies of the rich and famous. Gucci making memes for their mostly-wealthier audience contradicts the traditional line of internet humour that a lot of memes are made of.  (Either the minds behind the campaign don’t know the sheer number of communist meme pages that exist, or they just chose to leave it out of the brand’s narrative.)

Upon a quick survey of the social media accounts credited with creating the memes for Gucci, several of them were the kinds of pages who use their internet fame to sell t-shirts and promote their own personal brand.  I concede to the fact that Instagram (and social media in general) is rife with people looking for notoriety and recognition instead of ‘artistic fulfilment’ or ‘freedom found in creativity’ or whatever.  I can’t and won’t look down on people who take advantage of whatever exposure they have to get by in life—after all, we are all millennials just trying to survive in an expensive world, aren’t we? At the risk of sounding utterly pretentious, however, the Gucci collab with artists and meme accounts feels like a bit of a sell-out.

I understand that there are a lot of more important issues to be discussing other than a fashion brand’s attempt at intertwining mass culture into their marketing, and I appreciate that the brand was trying to collate memes with art (which is a position I have argued for in a previous Label article), but the application of memes in this context denigrates the unique social and political elements of memes that make them so funny in the first place.  All in all, the campaign wasn’t a failure: even though I won’t buy a watch, I did just dedicate a whole article to discussing it… and isn’t that part of the point of marketing? 10/10 for effort, Gucci, but please leave memes to the everyman.