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The memes that changed the 2016 presidential election

March 1, 2017 #Insights
The memes that changed the 2016 presidential election
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The release of our recent report on how businesses can use memes in marketing and communications coincided with the election and inauguration of Donald Trump as the 45th president of the United States.

We’re firm believers in the power of the meme, but even we didn’t think memes could be used to such devastating effect in the political arena. Here are some of the memes that changed the course of US political history.

Bernie or Hillary?

The ‘Bernie or Hillary?’ meme emerged at the end of January 2016. It compared the two Democrat candidates on issues based on a range of cultural reference points (such as Lord of the Things or Fight Club). The aim of the meme was to make Sanders look “cool” against his opponent who was depicted as ignorant and exploitative of youth culture. The meme took a hit on Clinton’s public image even after she won the Democrat primary: the harder she tried to capitalise on Sanders’ previous momentum, the more obvious it became that the foundation of the meme was accurate and Clinton was out of touch. ‘Bernie or Hilary?’ demonstrates the way that memes can both humanise a politician (Sanders) as well as destroy their credibility (Clinton).

Ted Cruz the Zodiac Killer

Over on the Republican side of the House, ‘Ted Cruz the Zodiac Killer’ is rated by We Are Flint (or maybe just me) as one of the most humorous conspiracy theories-turned-meme of 2016. The Internet accused the Republican Candidate Senator Ted Cruz of being the Zodiac Killer, an infamous serial murderer from the 1960s and 1970s. It didn’t matter that Cruz was born after the Zodiac Killer started killing, it just made sense to the Internet.

The memes impact led to the mainstream media picking up on the conspiracy theory and his wife, Heidi Cruz, was asked live on television if he was the Zodiac Killer. To add insult to injury, a Public Polling Study reported that “38% of Florida voters that it’s possible that Ted Cruz is the Zodiac Killer”. The conspiracy theory was even capitalised on by an author who published a romantic/sci-fi version of Ted Cruz as the Zodiac Killer, available on Amazon.

Of note, The Daily Dot conducted an investigation into why “Ted Cruz is…” did not generate “the Zodiac Killer” on Google results. They believed that Google had limited this field appearing in search reports. 

Pepe the Frog

One of the top presidential election, if not 2016 memes, has to go to the controversy that Pepe the Frog created. Pepe was originally a cartoon frog from a comic that became mainstream on the Internet several years ago. His resurgence during the election was as a mascot for the so called “alt-right”.

4Channers who believed Pepe had been abused by the mainstream culture of the Internet decided to take him back, and turned him into a fascist neo-Nazi symbol. While being interviewed on Israeli television on September 8th 2016, Clinton referred to Trump supporters as being “deplorables”. Unfortunately for Clinton, her engagement with the Pepe meme led to #BasketOfDeplorables trending on Twitter where people felt sympathy for Trump supporters who had been criticised by Clinton. On the other side of the spectrum, the “alt right” wore it like a badge of honour.


Following Donald Trump’s confirmation as the 45th President of the United States, the Internet erupted with memes. None stuck as prominently as the ones depicting the outgoing Administration, the “Jobama” memes.

Although its influence on the president election was null, it saw a renaissance during the aftermath and provided huge comic relief for the losing side on social media. The memes largely related to Biden pranking the President-elect during the transition and poked fun at what to expect from Trump/Pence.

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