Baby Yoda Meme Frenzy Marks New Marketing Frontier

Disney+

"It's not uncommon to sit with showrunners or production teammembers and overhear, 'That is going to be a meme,'" says one marketing executive as entertainment companies seek social virality.

It was still morning on Nov. 12 when the first, spoiler-ific photos from newly launched Disney+’s marquee show, The Mandalorian, began to circulate on social media. The character dubbed Baby Yoda began to spread like wildfire across Twitter timelines and Instagram feeds. One tweet in particular, a GIF of Baby Yoda peeking out from under its blanket, received more than 2,000 retweets, per the website Know Your Meme.

Then, on Nov. 21, the Baby Yoda GIFs all but disappeared from the internet. For a few days, Twitter users were forced to consider a scenario in which new images of the character didn’t flood social media after episodes of Mandalorian dropped each Friday. It wasn’t that far-fetched. After all, it was only about a decade ago that the entertainment companies went to war with YouTube over the spread of their video clips on the user-generated platform. (Viacom lost its $1 billion copyright infringement lawsuit against YouTube in 2013.) But in the years since, audiences have become accustomed to socially sharing images, GIFs and memes about the films and television shows that have captured their attention. Some IP owners have leaned into the trend, as Netflix did when it saw a rash of Bird Box memes last winter. The Sandra Bullock thriller went on to be viewed by 45 million subscriber households in its first week of availability, according to the streamer.

These social missives are "just how online conversation happens now," says Matt Schimkowitz, senior editor at Know Your Meme. "If you were to remove all of, say, Thanos from the internet, you would be cutting out a huge segment of conversation about your property." It turns out, Disney would never be so naïve. On Nov. 24, the Baby Yoda GIFs were reinstated and provider GIFPY took the blame, acknowledging that "there was some confusion around certain content."

Still, the prevalence of memes today creates a thoroughly modern predicament for media companies. Should executives tightly control their carefully developed IP or free it to the fans? "This tension has always existed, but it’s now more known and accepted among the creatives and executive brass that the cultural landscape has adopted this new digital language," notes Damian Bazadona, founder and president of digital marketing agency Situation.

It was a confluence of moments in the early aughts that led to the birth of meme culture. The launch of social platforms like Twitter and Instagram, along with the advancement of cell phone technology — Apple’s iPhone got its first major redesign in 2010 with the release of the iPhone 4 — made it easier for people to create and share images. Memes from Game of Thrones, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, SpongeBob SquarePants and other popular franchises have proliferated in the years since. This year, says Schimkowitz, Avengers: Endgame and Sonic the Hedgehog joined Baby Yoda as some of the memed entertainment IP.

He says that it’s rare to see a takedown request for memes and GIFs from films and TV shows today. "It would be very difficult to enforce," he explains, adding that such a move would "alienate the fan base of these properties."

Instead, allowing memes to hit the Twitterverse can create a moment that no amount of media spend could generate. Take Baby Yoda, which only got that name because of Mandalorian fans. (Series creator Jon Favreau calls the character The Child.) The cute little creature has helped create a hype cycle around Disney+ and likely contributed to its 10 million in first-day signups. "GIFs extend the cultural currency of this content far beyond their original broadcast channels," says GIPHY head of editorial Tyler Menzel. "They have turned entertainment into its own branded language."

Heading into the next decade, it would come as little surprise if entertainment brands looked for more ways to get in on the meme-ification of their franchises and characters. "It’s not uncommon to sit with showrunners or production teammembers and overhear, 'That is going to be a meme,'" says Matt Sample, president and chief creative officer at agency Hi5. But he cautions, it’s important to be authentic: "Let’s be honest, no one wants to see a brand belatedly jump into a meme trend with its own branded version."