Anything that is wildly successful through rapid and enthusiastic word of mouth can be deemed “viral”. Viral success does not require the internet per se, although the internet can accelerate transmission to epidemic proportions incredibly quickly. Back in 1990, before there was an internet, when the only tube was in your TV set and your yearbook was made of paper and cardboard, there was a movie that came out that, despite critics ridiculing it left and right, went viral quickly and became one of the top grossing romantic comedies of all time: Pretty Woman. This story was an amalgam of several archetypes, or memes, including Cinderella and The Ugly Duckling. But beneath that, at a deeper level, was another meme at work, which the Broadway team of Lerner and Lowe had used for their famous show: My Fair Lady. Which was loosely based on the George Bernard Shaw play Pygmalion. Which was inspired by the ancient Greek myth by the same name. So repeatedly, across 2,500 years, this story spreads (replicates) like wildfire in the hearts and minds of millions, and makes tons of money.
What was the average grade for Pretty Woman when it came out? Critics gave it an average of 51 points out of 100. I kid you not. In any decent school, that’s a failing grade. And yet, we didn’t care, and bought tickets (and then videotapes and DVDs) by the millions. And made the movie an icon, as well as the stars in it. So next time you’re sitting next to a self-proclaimed critic at the movie theatre, who’s ridiculing the ads or the movie itself that you’re watching, remember this: Memes will defy the critics, time and again, as Julia Roberts laughs her way straight to the bank.