Shitty memes are an effective communication tool. What Topham Guerin made for the police were just bad graphics, writes Mad Chapman.
Former police commissioner Mike Bush approved a $500,000 contract with Topham Guerin (the creative agency that provided social media content for the British Conservatives and the Australian Liberal Party) to create “memes” during the early Covid-19 response. I cringe whenever I see the word meme in quote marks but I use it here because while the thrilling RNZ report on the contract consistently refers to “memes” that Topham Guerin made for the police, none of the examples shown are actually memes.
$500,000 is a lot of money to pay for memes. It’s even more money to pay for memes that aren’t even memes.
The contract, which Bush approved under an expedited process in March 2020, involved five Topham Guerin staff making “40-50 pieces of content daily” to help fight the “information war” around Covid and New Zealand’s response. The contract was supposed to last three months but instead lasted three weeks. At the same time, the agency was contracted by the UK government to assist with its own public Covid-19 communications, with a £3m ($6m NZD) fee.
The behemoths of “shitty meme” marketing (you may see some of their work in the upcoming election campaign as they’re been hired again by the National Party), Topham Guerin did what they do best for the police: create visuals that look like shit.
Some are fine (a bad meme about All Black wingers being good at social distancing, the decent graphic with “Be kind, stay home, save lives” above a Kiwi heart) but largely it’s just a lot of…stuff. A more is more approach with no coherency. Some of the classic fear approach of conservative campaigns slips through, with one graphic simply saying “Follow the rules: If we don’t, people will die” and another saying “Going outside your bubble can kill”. Meanwhile, the predominant government messaging focused on staying home as a means of looking out for each other and protecting our most vulnerable. It’s a subtle but meaningful difference in framing.
Presumably, Bush wanted the agency involved because of its ability to get cut-through with information during election campaigns. Except the way information was presented for right-wing political parties was through “boomer memes” or “shit memes”. In other words, the agency softened some often terrible idealogical concepts by packaging them up in ironically ugly visuals. And it worked.
When questioned about the shit Covid “memes”, co-founder Sean Topham said in an email, “sometimes shitty memes are effective”, and he would know. Boris Johnson and Scott Morrison were both elected and, as we all know, were equally effective in their PM roles. The agency’s work for them was strong because it existed in an environment where division was the goal. There was a target (the oppoisition) and shitposting works when you want to cause friction. As much as I might oppose their clients or find the whole business icky, as a big supporter of memes as a form of communication, I can’t deny that Topham Guerin’s shit political memes are effective.
But the early days of a pandemic where the safety of all New Zealanders is dependent on unity and shared understanding is the literal opposite of where their strengths lie. Topham Guerin weren’t asked to be “edgy” or to push the envelope or to make an unpopular man palatable. What I would love to know is if they were contracted to make “memes” or graphics. Because words on a picture does not a meme make. And actually some classic meme formats with some clunky Covid-19 messaging plastered over it may have been effective. Instead, we got served the worst of both worlds (a meme approach to standard graphic design).
The images above are not shit memes. They’re just graphics that look bad. When you think of the Covid-19 response, what visuals come to mind? It’s likely the yellow and white stripes with the black text: Unite Against Covid-19 (which is, despite being words on a background, not a meme). That was an award-winning campaign run by creative agency ClemengerBBDO, effective in its simplicity, humanity and omnipresence.
Topham Guerin wasn’t asked to run a national campaign like that, but alongside it, the work still looks amateur. As so often happens, success in one specific area was viewed as an ability to succeed in every setting. Bush agreeing, in a hurry, to a $500,000 contract for some aesthetically displeasing content failed to grasp that a national lockdown wasn’t fertile ground for shit memes.
Based on the internal messages reported by RNZ, as well as experts, many others within the communications industry understood this. “Topham Guerin were putting out non-branded shitty memes and we were having to counter them with proper messaging,” said one expert. But what to do when you promised 50 pieces of your classic shitpost content and suddenly realise what’s needed is actually a sense of stability, maturity and expertise? I guess, chuck “If you burst your bubble, you may kill someone” on a picture of a couple walking their dog and call it a day.
Look, Topham Guerin will be more than fine. They’re back working with National this election and they’ll have no shortage of conservative clients to accept money from in years to come. Compared to the UK government contract, this work was small fry. The real loser here is Mike Bush, who was probably told “you just don’t get it” one too many times while looking at a bad meme and then approved a half-million-dollar contract with perhaps the least-suitable agency for the job. In the end, the police paid Topham Guerin $91,473 for two weeks of work and DPMC paid an extra $62,437 for six days.
And in return, Topham Guerin produced some decidedly mediocre work. We’ve all been there! Just don’t call their work shitty memes. It gives shitty memes a bad rap.