Politicians Making Shitty Memes May Be An Election Strategy In Itself

While you're unlikely to share a meme that may be funny, you're probably far more likely to engage with a meme that you think is absolutely awful.

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The federal election inches ever closer, and as all parties tussle for our attention, we are being subjected to some of the absolute worst memes imaginable.

It goes without saying in the year 2022 that anyone who wishes to have any real influence over society needs a social media presence and sadly, this includes politicians. Not only does this mean we witness Dave Sharma making shit lasagne on the reg, but it also means we must deal with the truly awful memes politicians use to dunk on each other in the lead up to polling day.

So why exactly are political memes so insufferably bad?

Let’s Have A Look At Some Recent Examples

If you look at any political party’s social media pages, you’ll largely see a compilation of infographics best described as a Canva employee’s wet dream. But between the political slogans and the infographics that are slowly paying off a graphic design student’s HECS debt while totally obliterating their creative drive are the memes.

While politics is usually a goldmine for meme content for the rest of us, when the politicians themselves do it, it never quite hits the mark. Perhaps the most recent example of this is the Liberal’s Anthony Albanese password meme, which was promptly ripped to shreds on social media for missing the mark entirely.

Interestingly, the meme was posted on the same day that Labor posted its own computer-themed meme that was so bad even a Clippy reference couldn’t salvage it.

The Coalition’s password meme, and Labor’s Clippy attempt.

Not only does this prove that there is not a single shred of originality when it comes to meme content on either side of politics, but it also serves as a prime example that neither Liberals nor Labor are immune from a bad meme. But why exactly is this, and is it a political move within itself?

Not All Is Fair In Politics And Memes

As we pointed out recently when a viral TikTok dubbed footage from Australia’s various natural disasters with the sound of Scott Morrison’s now-infamous coal speech, politicians and political parties have less to work with when it comes to memes than the rest of us.

While it’s all well and good for any random person on TikTok or Twitter to turn a Parliamentary speech into a meme, there are rules and regulations that prevent political parties from using this content for advertising. While this doesn’t totally explain why political memes often turn out so bad, it does offer some sort of answer as to why some of the best memes aren’t replicated by politicians.

“That clip from TikTok last week is a good example — as some people correctly noted, parliamentary clips aren’t allowed to be used in negative content. They aren’t going to crack down on individuals for using it but it’s out of the question for parties and pollies, unfortunately,” James*, a former political staffer who spoke to Junkee on the condition of anonymity, explained.

Why Are The Memes So Bad?

Perhaps the most obvious explanation as to why political memes are so awful is due to a lack of resources and funding for those working in social media teams — who are often junior staffers working more broadly across all aspects of media, as opposed to the specialised social media teams employed by businesses.

“There’s not too much risk in putting up a not very popular social media post. It’s all just trial and error. I guess underlying that is people ticking off on things probably have no real insight into memes and the people making them aren’t paid enough for them to be anything other than a junior staffer who moves on to better positions once they have experience,” Paul*, a former political media adviser told Junkee.

A similar sentiment was echoed by another political media adviser, who noted that party offices often have more resources available than individual politicians — where resources are stretched even thinner.

“In terms of time spent on memes, party offices and campaign units definitely spend way more time than the offices of politicians. For example, my job at the moment is more about my MP than making memes, that being said you can and should do both every now and then,” Michael* told Junkee.

These advisers also stressed that another major reason why the best memes aren’t replicated by politicians comes down to authenticity, with it appearing inauthentic or even fake for an otherwise dorky and boomer-esque politician to suddenly drop the best meme you’ve ever seen — even if someone in their team had a great idea.

“I agree that meme content from parties or pollies is on average very bad, and I personally tried to avoid leaning on memes or internet culture because it could come across as lazy or, more importantly, fake. We definitely did plenty of off-beat content from the Premier but I don’t think we ever used or referenced an existing meme because it wouldn’t be true to who he is (i.e. not someone who is aware of memes). We got really good reactions, including from young people, from just making lame dad jokes — they worked because they fit his actual personality and match the things they see and like at pressers,” added James.

“As most politicians are not actually young people, the concept of them “getting” memes or doing TikTok dances seems inherently artificial to me, and I think that tends to come across when they stray into that space.”

Are Bad Memes A Political Strategy In Themselves?

But while it may seem like politicians are just incredibly unfunny and abhorrent at social media, it’s important not discount the idea that creating awful memes is a political strategy within itself.

A meme — like the Albanese password meme — that was promptly ripped to shreds on social media isn’t the flop it may appear to be, according to one adviser, who noted that outrage engagement actually helps more than it harms in a lot of cases.

“The password meme was destroyed by progressives but all the comments and laugh reacts and shares of it just shared it to more people and spread the message further,” Michael told Junkee. “The Libs are great at this and it was really pioneered by a duo/company called Topham Guerin. They’re from NZ and did the Libs digital campaign last time here and then went to the UK and ran Boris’ successful digital campaign.

In a video posted shortly after helping the Morrison government win the last election, Topham Guerin’s Ben Guerin noted that evoking emotion — including negative emotion — is a win for content.

“Like, we’re not going to interact with something if we don’t care about it. But the particular emotions that we need to unlock are arousal emotions, we’re talking anger, excitement, pride, fear,” he said in a lengthy video that is mostly him humble-bragging about pissing people off in the name of winning the politics game. “Your content should be relating to one of these emotions for anyone to give a damn about it.”

This is by no means a revolutionary concept, and while it can be particularly problematic in a lot of cases, it is easy to see how a similar tactic could be employed in the case of the obviously bad memes we’re seeing ahead of the election.

While you’re unlikely to share a meme that may be funny, but is a blatant promotion of a political party, you’re probably far more likely to engage with a meme that you think is absolutely awful. The morality of click-baiting audiences for political gain — and the fact that this is the bread and butter of Topham Guerin’s business model — is questionable at best, but in the business of internet engagement, it’s hardly shocking.

Junkee has reached out to the Liberal Party for comment on whether it is still employing the services of Topham Guerin.

Lavender Baj is Junkee’s senior reporter focusing on news and politics. Follow her on Twitter.

*Names have been changed.