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Political Memes: Fast, Cheap And Out Of Control?

Even if you didn't watch any of the three presidential debates, chances are you're familiar with Big Bird, binders and bayonets.

The words were barely out the candidates' mouths before Internet memes — snarky punch lines slapped across images that, in this case, served as a takedown of a candidate or issue — began appearing on Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr feeds, where they quickly went viral.

The Romney and Obama campaigns may have spent hundreds of millions of dollars on TV and Web ads, but spontaneous memes created by average people are stealing their thunder and arguably doing a better job of "messaging," says Vincent Harris, a Republican political consultant who ran the digital campaigns of Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Newt Gingrich at various times during the GOP primary.

"The campaigns were not expecting these memes to be picked up by the general public, and certainly not in the way they've been used in these presidential debates," he says.

Poised To Pounce

Harris says he first noticed the power of memes when Mitt Romney bet Perry $10,000 over a policy dispute during a debate last December. "At the time, I was working for Perry. That $10,000 bet launched a series of memes that worked in our favor," he says.

Since then, what Harris calls a cadre of "social media elite" have been poised to pounce, "looking for any stumble or catchphrase to latch onto and produce a meme."

This election season has given rise to a slew of incisive and hilarious memes.

How effective have they been? "These memes have a whole lot of resonance with voters, and they are very successful at branding the candidates, mostly in a negative way. And, they are virtually cost-free," Harris notes.

Paul Brewer, associate director for research at the University of Delaware's Center for Political Communication, says he's fascinated by the sudden emergence of political Internet memes.

"Partly because they are a new phenomenon and partly because they are a participatory form of campaigning. It's so easy for citizens to generate these and for them to take off," he says.

Who's Funnier?

Memes have become a running commentary on the debates — and the most effective ones echo long after the debates end, Brewer says. While political memes aren't entirely new, they've caught fire largely because the way we experience debates has changed.

"Many of us are using television, social media, smartphones and tablets all at the same time as we take in the debates," Brewer says. "By the time the debate is halfway over, there's already a Tumblr site full of memes."

The campaigns have tried to get out front and control the message by creating memes of their own. But Brewer adds that none of them seems to have captured attention like those generated at the grass-roots level.

"The people hunkered down in the campaign bunker aren't going to be able to compete with the thousands of people out there. The crowd is inevitably going to have funnier ideas," he says.

The 'Wild West'

It represents a huge loss of control for the campaigns, regardless of whether the message is negative or seemingly beneficial, says Harris, the GOP consultant.

"It's the Wild West out there," he says. Even a well-intentioned supporter could generate inappropriate memes. "There could be a boomerang effect, where the message comes back to hit the candidate in the face."

For the campaigns that are simply on the wrong end of an unflattering meme, they can try a redirect, he says.

For example, in response to the "binders full of women" memes, the Republican National Committee created its own meme featuring a photo of a binder filled with blank pages and captioned "Obama's Second-Term Agenda."

Harris thinks smart campaigns will want to hire more staff to focus solely on social media, where they can communicate with citizens creating the memes, and others shaping perceptions of debates or other events.

"We are entering a post-pundit era, where people don't care so much what these talking heads are saying," he says. "A lot more is being decided by the online chatter."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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