In a nutshell
- The Barbenheimer meme serves as a compelling case study for the unexpected yet impactful role of internet memes in boosting film marketing and viewership.
- Production companies are taking notice and attempting to replicate the success of organically occurring memes, but efforts to force such viral memes often fail.
- The best marketing strategies in the meme era should embrace internet culture organically.
We recently saw the release of two high-budget major motion pictures: “Barbie” (2023) and “Oppenheimer” (2023). And they couldn’t be further apart in genre and subject, yet the duo accidentally found themselves subject to one of the best marketing strategies in Hollywood ever. How did they do this? It all boils down to one internet meme: Barbenheimer.
“Barbie” and “Oppenheimer” together grossed more than $2.2 billion, and part of that success is due to the Barbenheimer meme. So, what is the Barbenheimer meme? Where did it come from? Read on.
The origin of Barbenheimer
When it was announced that “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer” would be released in theaters on the same day, the internet got to work. Because of how different the films were — in both themes and aesthetics — the internet naturally pitted them against each other. It started with a tweet from @DiscussingFilm, stating both films would open on July 21, 2023. The tweet gained traction and led to many making memes about just how silly it was that such starkly different films were releasing on the same day. This led to the portmanteau Barbenheimer, a term widely used to describe the action of doing a double feature of both “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer” on the same day. Ultimately, this led to people who likely would have skipped either “Barbie” or “Oppenheimer” seeing both films.
The memes themselves
While the Barbenheimer memes varied in style and design, they mainly focused on the vast differences between these two films and how the combination of the two created a humorous contrast between gritty and dark and vibrant pink sunshine. Many users photoshopped images from Oppenheimer in the style of Barbie, turning the giant mushroom clouds from the atomic bomb pink. They also used contrasting photos of stars Margot Robbie (Barbie) in bright pink and Cillian Murphy (J. Robert Oppenheimer) in a very dark and gray palette to show the contrast. This led to people using that bright/dark contrast in memes tied to people’s thoughts, moods and experiences. See the example below:
These are only two of the many examples of the memes surrounding these two films and the reason they had such wide successes in attracting audiences.
The power of name combinations and internet culture
As we’ve observed with past name combinations, like “Brangelina” for Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, portmanteau words can quickly capture the public’s attention and become widely discussed topics. In today’s digital age, the internet and social media amplify this effect, allowing more people to engage with and spread these subjects to even larger audiences.
The recent “Barbenheimer” phenomenon owes much of its success to internet meme culture. Memes serve as a modern form of humor, used to create satirical content or simply express opinions. Given the widespread nature of internet memes and the unique combination of the “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer” films, what we witnessed was one of the most effective, albeit unintentional, marketing campaigns for movies ever. Essentially, meme culture excited both audiences for “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer” to see both films — something that surely wouldn’t have happened without the meme due to their different target audiences.
How could a meme be beneficial to film marketing?
The benefit — or, in some cases, the downside — of an internet meme going viral is that it reaches a broad audience worldwide, including people who wouldn’t normally engage with that specific subject matter. This was evident with the “Barbenheimer” memes, which went viral and raised global awareness for two major film releases. As a result, studios saw a surge in potential viewers from demographics that wouldn’t typically watch these kinds of films. The phenomenon also harkened back to a time when fewer films were released, and audiences often participated in double features, watching two movies back-to-back.
In the case of Barbenheimer, audiences who would typically be interested in just one of the films ended up watching both, driven by the meme’s viral nature. This led to viewers sitting through nearly five hours of film — something that likely wouldn’t have happened without the meme’s influence.
Another advantage of memes for marketing is the potential to attract audiences who might not normally be interested. For example, many young people who were previously unaware of Oppenheimer’s historical significance found themselves learning about the topic. This suggests that meme marketing could be effective for historical or educational films, especially to capture younger audiences.
However, there is a caveat: Care must be taken to ensure that such memes do not come across as disrespectful or insensitive to serious issues. This became a concern with Barbenheimer, which was criticized by the nation of Japan as being disrespectful to the horrors they experienced due to J. Robert Oppenheimer’s work.
Will more production companies try to recreate the Barbenheimer success?
With the massive success of Barbenheimer, this now begs the question: Will production companies start employing internet memes as a way to promote their films? And, if so, how will they execute these memes? Well, we don’t have to speculate. We’re already seeing production companies trying to recreate the Barbenheimer meme. For instance, the Paramount Pictures X/Twitter account quote-tweeted a tweet from @DiscussingFilm, revealing that “Saw X” and “Paw Patrol: The Mighty Movie” would be released in theaters on the same day. Paramount replied, “Seven tickets to Saw Patrol, please. #SawPatrol.” But, unfortunately for Paramount, SawPatrol didn’t see the success that Barbenheimer did.
However, more film production companies will likely try to recapture the lightning in a bottle that was Barbenheimer. Aside from creating clever portmanteaus, we predict more productions will do double-feature releases. It’s possible companies will begin conspiring with each other to push the double-feature marketing tactic. But what’s more likely is that companies will either predict the release of other films they want to attach their films to or adjust their internal release dates after another company announces its movie. It’s also possible for studios to release two of its own films at the same time as well to promote a double-feature release.
Can you force a meme?
Artificially creating a meme movement is a daunting task. Authentic memes tend to spread organically, as was the case with Barbenheimer’s viral success. Attempts to force memes often fall flat or fade quickly. Meme culture is a realm owned by the public, and most people are averse to overt advertising. When production companies try to manipulate memes, it can be perceived as a disingenuous attempt to disguise advertising as entertainment, which can be more off-putting than straightforward marketing.
Ironically, the Barbenheimer meme, one of the most successful marketing phenomena in recent years, was entirely organic, with no involvement from the film’s marketing team. So, what can we glean from the Barbenheimer phenomenon? Firstly, film companies and their marketing teams should wholeheartedly embrace creativity. Barbenheimer seamlessly combined two entirely unrelated films into a double-feature release, showcasing the power of unexpected combinations in marketing campaigns. Additionally, marketing teams should acknowledge and engage with meme culture but refrain from trying to force memes. Both the “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer” cast members supported the Barbenheimer movement and even participated in it. For instance, Margot Robbie’s statement, “Start your day with ‘Barbie,’ then go straight into Oppenheimer, and then a ‘Barbie’ chaser,” contributed to the ongoing success of the marketing strategy without coming across as forced.
So, can memes help you market your film? Yes, as long as you don’t have a hand in starting them.