Words are alive and well in the internet age, observes Faris Yakob, and their broader cultural effects are more than ever tied to their ability to break free of their intended contexts and become bigger then the ad – here’s how it worked for these brands.

Once in a while, advertising transcends the stratum reserved for commercial communication. It can be seen to have an effect on culture, creating linguistic ripples that appear on talk shows or TikTok.

Last year, insurance giant State Farm released a batch of commercials and one ignited a minor cultural conflagration. In the spot in question, a woman named Cheryl has called the fire brigade because her shed is on fire. But it’s not just any shed, it’s her ‘she shed’, which is the female equivalent of a ‘man cave,’ but in the garden and more tastefully furnished.

The agency didn’t coin the term, it was an existing idea most people hadn’t heard of. They found a small pocket of culture and riffed on it. The ad is funny enough, playing with the obvious tongue twisting opportunities as Cheryl says she wants a more chichi she shed.

It aired for months before attracting the attention of the memetic machine. The ad brought the concept to more people, then memes brought the ad to more still. Conspiracy theorists on Reddit analyzed who the likely arsonist was [no, seriously], it became its own lolcat style format, and you can buy t-shirts admitting to the alleged crime. The actress who played Cheryl recently penned an op-ed explaining how its viral success has changed her life, which neatly seals that culture loop.

Many years ago, I worked on the 118-118 launch campaign, which could definitely be said to have ascended into the collective consciousness. ‘The boys’ in the ads ran around shouting "Got your Number!" at people in the street.

Then ‘the boys’ hit the streets all over the UK in real life. And then everyone was doing it. We call these fragments of language ‘winged words’ after an expression that Homer used often without being entirely clear what he meant. The words flew out the Odyssey and came to mean a phrase that starts as a quote but then takes on a life of its own, a coinage which rendered it an example of itself. 

The ultimate aim of all commercial communication is to spread ideas that elicit a behavioural response, specifically mass purchase behaviour. But if a brand can propagate an intermediate behaviour, like getting people to shout "Got your number" or "Wassup!" at each other, then some additional benefits accrue.

Before social media existed to share them and YouTube existed to host them, people made hundreds of Budweiser "Wassup" spoofs, spreading the message further. In a person's head, the catchphrase recalls and reinforces the brand and communicates it further at the same time. It’s not quite hacking word of mouth but it’s about as close as advertising can get without paying people to lie to their friends.

The Word of Mouth Marketing Association says that “traditionally, word of mouth was spread from one person to another based on recommendation but modern word of mouth marketing describes both targeted efforts and naturally occurring instances where users share their satisfaction with a brand.” Such marketing seems to mostly consists of anything that will generate social media mentions – if an ad is seen by millions of people during the Super Bowl but no one tweets, did it really do anything at all?

Budweiser’s Game of Thrones inspired campaign also surfaced a new strand of language. The word itself means “an excellent example of a particular type of person or thing” but you are more likely to be familiar with it in its doublet. “Dilly Dilly” was as unavoidable as, well, Game of Thrones for a year or so in the USA. Andy Goeler, VP of Bud Light, explained "the phrase has taken on a life and a meaning of its own, thanks to fans of the commercials”.

These strands of language can be very sticky, lasting for years, decades or even centuries. Legend has it that ‘ring-a-ring-a-rosies’ dates from the time of the Black Death in Europe but spoilsport folklorists doubt this. It appears in printed sources since at least the eighteenth century but the myth tying it the plague years creeps in later. Sometimes the right words find the meanings we need them to have. 

The Philadelphia Eagles were historic underdogs when one of their players promised everyone in the city free beer if they won the SuperBowl at the beginning of the season. Bud Light publicly offered to provide the beer in a Tweet. As the team progressed successfully through the games, they started working with the brand and “Philly Philly” was born, becoming a clarion call for the team, the beer and the city. The Eagles won the Super Bowl and Bud came through with the beer and limited-edition packaging and promotions, which just picked them up a Grand Prix at the Clio awards. That’s a dilly of a win-win.