July 25, 2016 Andy Green

Specsavers – should’ve listened to Oscar Wilde, or Richard Dawkins about memes


News that Specsavers, the high street optician, is attempting to trademark the phrase “should’ve” shows how they are failing to understand the wise words of Oscar Wilde or understand memes – and are in danger of scoring a massive communications own goal.

The company is reported to have filed a trademark application with the UK Intellectual Property Office to establish Specsavers’ rights to use of the terms “should’ve” and “shouldve” in a range of commercial spheres.

The move was presumably instigated by the use of the phrase, “should’ve gone to Specsavers” at the end of their adverts. There is legal opinion who think the rules would not allow such a common phrase to be trademarked.

Yet the move doesn’t make significant sense in the rules of modern-day communications terms either.

The great observer of the human condition, the writer Oscar Wilde noted in his ‘Picture of Dorian Grey’, “There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.”

The enemy of Brand communications and PR are not messages from Brand competitors.

It’s being ignored.

The worst thing for a brand, as Oscar rightly notes, is to be ignored, on an onward journey to oblivion.

Similarly, if Specsavers had an ounce of knowledge about memes they would actually be encouraging people to use the phrase, to adapt, extend and give new energy, life and resonance to the underlying meme.

Guess what? Any time anyone uses the phrases ‘should’ve’ in a different way, it reinforces, reinvests, and gives new vigour to the underlying meme. And who is the parent of the phrase, what brand will people be unconsciously recognising and coupling with their psyches? Why Specsavers of course.

Communicators, PR people need a new mindset. People communicate emotionally. What gets transmitted, received and retransmitted is not the factual best. It’s the most convenient meme.

A common mistake people make about memes is to think they are a special form of communication, or are the viral things that can get passed around the internet.

The word ‘meme’ is this year celebrating its 40th birthday, created by Richard Dawkins in his seminal book ‘The Selfish Gene’. Memes are the engine of communications, the vehicle for any form of cultural communication, from the act of sitting on a chair to #projectfear.

A convenient meme is one that is coherent, lives long enough to be copied, and is easily copy-able.

You cannot control or limit a meme. You can however, encourage its use, or use counter-memes to limit their potential damage.

Great publicists abide by the apocryphal ‘There’s no such thing as bad publicity’ phrase associated with showman and circus owner Phineas T. Barnum (Itself, another example of memes at work, with no hard evidence proving his coining the phrase).

This appreciates the oxygen of publicity, requiring usage and fresh sustenance to keep the communication alive.

Great PR people however, recognise how bad publicity can undermine brand reputation, relationships, influence, trust and social capital.

Yet, rather, than oppose, resist or deny the use of a meme, potential mememasters like Specsavers should be, would give their right eye for a valuable asset that could grow, expand and sustain itself of its own volition, without compromising their PR assets.

I prefer the words of another great Irish wit, Brendan Behan who wrote “There’s no such thing a bad publicity, except your own obituary.”

Ignore memes and their precious asset at your peril.

Specsavers need to look again at its potential folly, listen to the wise words of Oscar Wilde and learn about memes. Otherwise, their legal protection could send a powerful meme to its own graveyard.

Pass it on.

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