Memes and Marketing: The “Iconic” Meme

Some memes seem to appear suddenly, like a dust devil or a full-on tornado, and then disappear just as quickly, leaving only a dusty aftertaste in our mouths, like the recent “Harlem Shuffle” meme, which was an expression of a deeper and persistent desire of ‘civilized’ people to release their proverbial Id (Freud’s identification of the more primal impulses within us). Or, to put it more bluntly, “screw the rules and let’s all party like crazy”. That’s a meme that will come back again in another form, brace yourselves.

And there are memes that are a slower burn, that gradually gather momentum or slowly seep into our vernacular. For example, over the last decade, the term “iconic” is being used with greater and greater frequency and applied to an increasing number of subjects. As cities strive to build their international reputations, they search for current and potential symbols that are iconic. So the term is thrown around with, at times, great abandon. Let’s take a quick look at the term for a more thoughtful view.

The American Heritage Dictionary defines the word “icon” (from the Greek “ikon”) in the following ways:

1. A representation or picture of a sacred or sanctified Christian personage, traditionally used and venerated in the Eastern Church.

2. An important and enduring symbol: “The disposable lighter is an icon of the throwaway mentality that began to take shape in the years following World War II” (Susan Freinkel).

3. One who is the object of great attention and devotion; an idol: “He is … a pop icon designed and manufactured for the video generation” (Harry F. Waters).

So, given this, for the word “iconic” to have meaning, it should be applied selectively. Not everything is “an important and enduring symbol”. Simply being famous, does not make you iconic. Catherine Deneuve, as a symbol of the beauty and sophistication of the French culture, is iconic. Just look at the way the woman smokes a cigarette. That’s not a mere mortal, that’s a goddess in human form teaching us how a divine personage would smoke a Gauloise. Audrey Hepburn, especially when she gracefully segued from Oscar-winning actress to the ambassador for UNICEF (way before it was cool to fly to Africa to meet with orphan children), became iconic. The Kardashians are famous, or infamous, but they are not iconic.

Toronto as a city, has a few iconic features, such as the CN Tower, the Toronto International Film Festival, and possibly the Mies Van Der Rohe towers for TD Bank (one of the “iconic” architect’s greatest achievements). Chicago, where I just spent the weekend, has the iconic Magnificent Mile, where the shopping experience is rich and eye-popping. San Francisco has the iconic Transamerica tower, which has figured prominently in novels and films such as “Tale of the City”, as the symbol of the Emerald City that San Francisco has been known and loved for. And New York, the most iconic of all North American cities, boasts any number of features that can rightfully be deemed iconic.

Like the term “viral”, “iconic” is not something you plan for. You cannot create a “viral video”, you can only create a video that’s engaging and hope that it might go viral. You cannot build an “iconic” building, you can only build a building that is beautiful, and hopefully meaningful and useful to the humans who will use it, and perhaps someday it will be considered iconic.

However, what’s very apparent is the powerful desire that many have to create, or even to become, that which is “an enduring symbol” and “the object of great attention and devotion.” This meme, I suspect, will never go away.