Biden is hiring a meme manager. But viral success might not be as easy as he hopes.

Two of the videos the Biden campaign has shared to its 375,000 TikTok followers. (via Biden-Harris HQ TikTok)
Two of the videos the Biden campaign has shared to its 375,000 TikTok followers. (via Biden-Harris HQ TikTok)

Buried within the list of 100 available jobs for President Biden’s 2024 campaign is a role dedicated to running “content and meme pages.” The salary range caps at $85,000 and the application requires only entering a full name and uploading a resume. (The other common job application features that include questions about identity, cover letter and social media links are all optional.)

The full-time position is to help the campaign bring “political content to voters” who are online by leveraging internet trends and forming relationships with “podcasters and meme pages.”

It makes sense the campaign is looking for someone to tap into internet culture; Biden has historically struggled to win over young voters. DeNora Getachew, the CEO of DoSomething.org, a nonprofit dedicated to helping young people implement social change, explained to Yahoo News that Gen Z “doesn’t have this trust in political figures and decision makers right now.” She thinks it could be a good thing for the Biden campaign to adapt its marketing strategy to Gen Z, rather than trying to get Gen Z to come to them.

“We’re all watching in real-time and forging new territory of modern campaigning,” she said. She added that for this tactic to work, the campaign needs to “demonstrate they’re aware of the evolution of modern campaigning and they’re going to meet Gen Z and millennials where they are.”

Reaching young voters through TV and website ads doesn’t make the most sense, considering where they get their news. The Pew Research Center found that most polled users use X specifically for political news, although people still consume news — whether they seek it out or not — across all major social platforms.

Specifically for Gen Z, a 2021 study from the Journal of Student Research concluded that meme culture for the generation is deeper than a simple online joke and is “a form of speech” in “political discourse.” The study concluded that if marketing teams “use memes, understanding humor preferences” of Gen Z, it “could be greatly beneficial to marketing and social outreach.”

Biden has already seen some minor success with his social media presence, even joining TikTok in February. (He has since signed a law potentially banning the platform in the U.S.) In response to the Kansas City Chiefs Super Bowl win, his social team leaned into the “Dark Brandon” meme — a phrase that originated in October 2021 as code for anti-Biden rhetoric. His tweet generated over 200,000 shares and over 500,000 likes and was covered by multiplemajornewsoutlets.

Political figures like Sen. Bernie Sanders and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have found success in reaching young people by leaning into online culture, too.

But Jamie Cohen, a digital media expert, told Yahoo News several factors go into making a political candidate’s social media outreach work. For Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez, they both are populist figures, which does not apply to Biden. (Although political pundits have pointed out that Biden seems to have “road-tested populist re-election themes” leading up to his nomination.)

“Populism always uplifts the common person, which is your basic internet user,” Cohen explained. “[Their] popularity of memeing comes from the populism, not from anything else.”

When it comes to Biden, Cohen said he “gets” what the Biden administration is trying to do, but noted that successful memes have evolved to a point where they are too hyperspecific and niche to resonate with a widespread audience.

“This isn’t how young Gen Zers or Gen Alpha, future voters — this isn’t how they communicate,” he said. “It’s different now. Playing this game feels, like, three years late.”

In 2020, Mike Bloomberg’s presidential campaign had partnerships with big Instagram meme accounts like F***Jerry, which had close to 15 million followers, and tank.sinatra, which had almost 3 million. Several of the meme accounts shared staged Instagram direct message conversations between them and Bloomberg, wherein Bloomberg asks all of them to make him “look cool.” It did not work.

“I think, unfortunately, the most successful memes in politics are extreme far-right memes,” Cohen continued. “Those work really well because the base is interested in it because it carries so much encoded messaging, it’s hard for the audience to know what the meme even means.”

Take as an example the early iterations of the “Dark Brandon” meme. A person not within the online inner circles as the meme evolved would not understand the joke. Cohen argues that the niche element that makes a meme successful or go viral is hard to create organically — a lot of them, he says, are “reactionary.” It’s also not necessarily something a presidential candidate trying to appeal to the masses would want in the first place.

“When you’re dealing with the general public, a Kermit sipping tea isn’t going to do the thing,” he said. “It’s just going to be cringeworthy.”

The line between cringeworthy and successful is thin because Getachew sees something in what Biden’s campaign is trying to do.

“Combine eligible Gen Z voters with millennial voters, they are poised to make up 49% of the electorate — that’s a game changer,” she said. “If modern campaigning doesn’t evolve to meet the needs of the fastest-growing segment of our demographic, then democracy is never getting close to a more perfect union.”

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