Thursday, 17 March 2011

Memetic hitchhiking

Genetic hitchhiking is a well-known and well-understood effect in organic biology - where a gene spreads by virtue of linkage to another gene which is subject to favourable selection.

"Memetic hitchhiking" is the same thing - but with memes, instead of genes.

Memetic hitchhiking is a key marketing concept. It typically involves taking some viral content, and attaching some payload material to it. The viral content spreads naturally, dragging the payload material along for the ride in the process.

The viral content can come from practically anywhere.

Payload removal

Payload removal is a real problem. For example, this viral video is an IKEA advert - showing an elderly lady activating a man's car air bag by hitting his car with her handbag. It has been replicated countless times (here, here, here, here and here) on YouTube - and on most occasions the trailing advert has been stripped off.


Rather than just appending or prepending the payload to the viral content, a more sophisticated technique is to interleave the two. For example, here is a video of Google's Chrome interleaved with gay pride as a delivery mechanism.

Memetic linkage

Memetic hitchhiking depends on the idea of memetic linkage - which describes how memes can come to be linked together in various ways.

Phenotypic hitchhiking

Memetic hitchhiking is closely related to the idea of Phenotypic hitchhiking. However, memetic hitchhiking normally depends on memetic linkage, while phenotypic hitchhiking does not.


A closely-related technique involves forming a link between a common phrase - or a catchy song - and your product. I call that triggering - and cover it in a separate post.

Bait and hook

The favoured content normally contains what Hofstadter described as the bait and hook. The bait is what attracts people in the first place, and the hook is what makes them spread the idea. Between them, these do much of the work of propagating the content.

Anyone who has ever attached a picture of a pretty lady to their article or product is essentially using memetic hitchhiking for marketing purposes.

Of course, I genuinely needed a picture of a female hitchhiker for this article. The pretty girl is the favoured content. The payload that comes along for the ride is her boyfriend - who was hiding off-camera at the time the above photograph was taken.

Hitchhiking towards extinction

While hitchhiking with positively-selected memes leads to success, hitchhiking with unsuccessful memes leads towards extinction. It really matters which memes are used as hitchhiking partners.


Memetic hitchhiking has been one of the targets of critics of memetics. Here is Massimo Pigliucci:

Yes, the analogy transfers, not the theory. For instance, you simply cannot apply the population genetic terms "hitchhiking" and "recombination" to memes while retaining their technical meaning. You can do so only by analogy, which is the whole problem with memetics. It's a metaphor.
As you can see from this page this criticism is technically mistaken. Hitchhiking (in the technical sense) applies to memes just as it does to genes.


Microsoft used memetic hitchhiking using the double-rainbow video. Here is the original video:

...and here is the Microsoft version:

Others have made spin-off versions of the video, attaching their own distinctive elements to the original in various ways. For example here is an actress performing a double-rainbow monologue.

Memetic hitchhiking is used by parodies. It is used by cover versions. Fan fiction uses it. It is used by many mashups.

Another advertising example would be this viral Bruce Lee footage:

Here, though, there is some risk that the viral part of the video could become separated from the Nokia advert "payload". Another example is the T-Mobile Royal Wedding:

Again, little besides copyright law prevents the viral content being separated from the advert - payload removal.

Another example of memetic hitchhiking from Microsoft:

Another example of memetic hitchhiking is Volkswagen's Piano stairs / fun theory advert. Note that in this case, the advert is relatively inconspicuous. Only a few would care enough to bother with payload removal.


1 comment:

  1. Viral marketing has been one of the most successful ways in spreading their word to the people around the world, with the effective use of catchy music and witty remarks that will stick to you for a very long time.