Memes can be a profitable business
When you take a photo or video of your child, you don’t expect it to make you hundreds of thousands of dollars — well, not unless you are a Kardashian.
But for a few people each year, it does happen — especially if their child becomes a meme. For the three people who use the internet who don’t know what a meme is, it’s “an image, video, piece of text, etc., typically humorous in nature, that is copied and spread rapidly by internet users, often with slight variations.”
Some images become viral as they get photoshopped into content and spread on the internet. The most popular ones are often given a nickname.
But have you ever wondered what happens to the families behind the photos and if they receive any benefit from their images. Of course, you have — that’s why you are reading this article.
So let’s take a look at three of the most popular images that became global viral memes and how the parents of these children monetized the content.
It’s meme business.
A defiant look in his eye and a fistful of sand.
Dubbed ‘Success Kid,’ Sammy Griner was one of the first truly viral memes.
The meme originated in 2007 when Laney Griner uploaded a photo of her 11-month-old son, Sammy, to Flickr and then Getty Images. The original title of the photo was “I Hate Sandcastles,” suggesting that the infant was some sandcastle bully who enjoyed destroying the work of others.
Over the next few months, the photo began appearing on MySpace, and Laney, in a wise move, removed the photo from Getty Images so she could own the licensing. As the photo’s popularity spread, it became associated with success, and the little boy was subbed The Success Kid.
In 2012, the image began being used in advertising campaigns, first for Vitamin Water and then Virgin Mobile in the UK. The success of those campaigns led to Griner employing a Meme Manager.
Yep, that’s a real job.
Laney hired Ben Lashes, the world’s first meme agent, and he helped generate even more revenue for the Griners.
Sammy Griner soon had a t-shirt range, was featured in Radio Shack corporate collateral, and was even used as a screensaver for Xbox. Barack Obama even used the image during his immigration reform campaign in 2013.
Perhaps the best part of the meme’s success is what happened in 2015.
Griner’s father, Justin, needed a liver transplant, so Laney Griner launched a GoFundMe campaign to raise money for medical bills. She decided to parlay the recognition of her son and leverage that to try and raise $75,000. Within a week, it earned over $100,000.
At the time, she said, “by now, it’s just out there. What am I going to do? At least it’s positive. Without that happening, how much could I get this recognition about my husband’s kidney transplant?”
A meme may have saved a man’s life.
At the same time that the Success Kid had his own Meme Manager, a new child entered the picture.
In September 2013, a video was posted on YouTube titled “Lily’s Disneyland Surprise… AGAIN,” showing two sisters, Lily and Chloe, reacting to the news that they were being taken to Disneyland. Lily breaks into excited tears as her younger sister Chloe pulls a WTF face at the camera.
Someone created an animated GIF of Chloe’s reaction uploaded it to the website Tumblr. Within one month, it received 895,000 notes, and Chloe was featured in a Buzzfeed article where she was called “the patron saint of Tumblr.”
And so, Side-Eye Chloe was born — as well as the Side-Eye Chloe business.
The original YouTube video earned over 20 million views. Soon after, both Lily and Chloe picked up modeling contracts, and Chloe was even featured in ads for Google Brazil.
Nine years later, Chloe is still leveraging her meme. She has over 500,000 Instagram followers and has even entered the world of non-fungible tokens.
In September last year, Chloe’s parents auctioned their NFT for 25 Ethereum —approx $74,000 at the time. The buyer was a Dubai-based music production company.
“The money is awesome, but it’s just the fact that we get to do this as a family is so much fun.” Katie Clem, mother of Chloe.
Seems more fun than I had as an 11-year-old.
In 2005, a four-year-old Zoe Roth went with her family to watch a house on fire in her neighborhood. It was a controlled fire, and firefighters allowed neighbors to take photos and even take turns holding the hose.
David Roth, Zoe’s father, took a photo of his daughter with a very cheeky smile on her face. That photo remained hidden from the public for a few years until Dave entered it into a photo contest run by JPG magazine.
His photo of Zoe won the contest — and soon won the internet.
Disaster Girl was born, and Zoe’s face was photoshopped onto disasters such as The Titanic, meteor showers, dinosaur attacks, etc.
The Roths profited from the meme. A social media marketing company bought the rights to the image, which helped pay for part of Zoe’s college fees. They also earned a little money from advertising campaigns.
But the best result was to come 16 years after the photo was taken.
On April 17, 2021, Zoe Roth auctioned the original copy of her meme as an NFT.
The meme sold for 180 Ether, worth half a million dollars at the auction. Just as important, the Roths also retained the copyright and will receive 10 percent of future sales.
That’s the beauty of an NFT; the original owner can keep earning every time the NFT is sold.
These three photos all turned into viral memes, earning big bucks for their families. Of course, there is also the downside with anything on the internet.
In 2020, Laney Griner took legal action against one person using photos of her son.
A congressman from Iowa, Steve King, was using a copyrighted photo of her son for his website and campaign materials. What upset Laney was that King had a long history of making racist remarks, and she didnt want her son associated with such offensive comments.
You have to protect your brand — especially when it’s your family. And that’s when having an agent to protect your interest helps.
Before writing this article, I had thought little of the people that evolved into memes and if they can profit off their fifteen minutes of fame.
Some of them have a bit of luck but the smarter ones can make decent profits. And helping people achieve those profits is the Meme Manager
Ben Lashes is still a Meme Manager and his clients include Doge, Scumbag Steve, Ermahgerd, the Ridiculously Photogenic Guy, and Grumpy Cat. Names that I’m not embarrassed to admit I know.
He helped sell more than 1 million Grumpy Cat plush dolls and over 2 million Grumpy Cat books. Lashes has found a niche and made a business out of it.
He is now focusing on the NFT market for his clients.
“With memes, they already locked the key piece of entertainment. There’s an ‘X factor’ with art or certain things in the world that, when people see it, it evokes a pure reaction that people want to share. Creating revenue and monetizing memes isn’t exactly new. Protecting them isn’t really new. We all have copyrights and property licensing in order to protect the IP.”
His meme client roster continues to expand as people seek to profit from the interest in NFTs.
So what is actually like to be internet famous?
According to Zoe Roth, “mostly, the experience has been positive. It has never been scary. In college, a few people have come up to me and said, “Are you the girl from the internet?” I’ve never been recognized by random strangers, though. I generally don’t take issue with any of the memes: as long as they’re not offensive, I’m fine with them.”
For someone dubbed “Disaster Girl,” it seems the experience has been anything but a disaster.
I’m off now to share some photos of my kids across every platform I know. Ben Lashes, you’ll be hearing from me soon.
Author: Ash Jurberg