The Wolf of Wall Street as a meme generator

By Franco Veltri

To watch the Wolf of Wall Street is a must for professional communicators. Leaving aside ethical considerations, Jordan Belfort is a a master in communications who had no clue about why he was so successful. Indeed, to write his book he had to consult an expert who re-created the theory that was behind his instinctive technique. And he is now becoming reach again by teaching that theory.

Jordan was – and still is – particularly skilled in capturing ideas in very simple key messages.  Some of them are now viral ‘memes’ on the net.


The term and concept of ‘meme’ is from the 1976 book by Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene. Though Dawkins defined the meme as “a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation,” by checking Wikipedia it is clear that the meaning of this concept has evolved, particularly with the advent of internet.  An “Internet meme” is a concept that spreads rapidly from person to person, largely through social networks, E-mailing, blogs, forums, etc.  Quite often Internet memes are simple quotes,  possibly associated to  an image, used as the easiest tool to convey a convincing and memorable concept.

In his book Creativity in Public Relations,  Andy Green  states:

“Memes are to communications what DNA is to genetics. Memes are a combination of elements that form themselves into a distinct memorable unit, such as the concepts of ‘arch’, ‘the thumbs-up gesture’, ‘a joke’, ‘send you an e-mail’,  Romeo and Juliet, ‘the latest clothing style’, ‘a white flag on a battlefield’, ‘the celebrity talent show’ or ‘social media’. You instantly know the meaning behind the communication.”

As Green brilliantly explains, the exponential growth in communications and the increasing siege people find themselves in as they are bombarded with messages make it increasingly difficult for communicators to reach their audiences. Memes can be used as a shortcut, to break through the clutter by immediately communicating who you are and why they should engage with you.

To be able to create viral memes is therefore an important skill that communicators must cultivate. As always, when there is a demand, there is somebody developing helping technology. There are internet sites and apps that can assist in putting together a meme, once its main ingredients are clear in our mind.  For istance, Memecrunch offers the option to easily create a meme, as well as links to associated Apps.  Several professional PR firms specialize in producing memes, like Smart Meme Studios.    It is noticeable that on their home page they state:

“Memes can be redefined, reinterpreted and recreated by incident or intent. A meme can subconsciously and psychologically motivate individuals, peoples and groups to feel and act.”

A very recent case of a meme produced by incident is the graffito depicting Pope Francis as Superman.pope

Mauro Pallotta, the author of the image, speaking to Vatican Insider, said the reason he portrayed the Pope this way is because he sees Francis as a “superhero” using his power for the good of the people. That’s why he’s a very “pop” Pope. In his hand he carries a briefcase with Christian values and a scarf with the colours of the San Lorenzo football team. This makes him more human. He’s human and he’s humble but he’s a superhero, Pallotta said.

The Pontifical Council for Social Communications immediately understood its viral potential and posted a picture of the mural on its Twitter account (@PCCS_VA).   The mural was erased but if you search Google now for  Pope Francis Superman, you get 1.200.000 results.  Quite a cheap way to conduct a PR campaign!

So, if we want to replicate such a success what do we need to look for? What are the main ingredients of a successful meme?

Here is a  very short compilation, derived from several public sources, to include Andy Green’s book, BurrellesLuce,  and Andrew Spence:

  • Identify your core message  and make it suitable for being conveyed with very few words.  Effective memes associated with a product or service, generate images, words and feelings in the brain that create a desire, meet a need or inspire action. Memes are meant to be humorous while instilling ideas cleverly. The message must reach your audience and remain with them for a long time.
  • Identify the factors that can make leverage on your target audience. Like elements that may create anxiety or fear on the one hand, and on the other extreme happiness, contentment or a feeling of security.
  • Identify what is already in the minds of your target audience as your meme will be more readily taken on board if their mind is already potentially receptive to it. One way to achieve this is to make use of popular trends. To get your messages across in a viral world, you need to first know the trends and conversations taking place in your niche markets.

If you want to look for examples, the net is full of memes. There are even sites that just collect them, like The Daily Meme.   Good luck!



About fveltri

Former NATO and military spokesperson, currently Public Affairs consultant and President, ComIPI (
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