Coming up with new ideas is tough. As much as we want to innovate and set new trends, more often than not we resort to rehashing existing content. Not that it’s a bad thing, mind you. This is especially true in the case of pop culture media, as brands need a multitude of ways to resonate with their customers. There’s only so many times McDonald’s can rely on the100% beef guarantee in their quarter pounder burgersto promote their product, but what if they roped incelebrity rapper Travis Scott for an endorsement dealor catered to theDIY craze with a “new” way to enjoy the quarter pounder? Boom! Fresh new content from the same old product.
While celebrity deals are powerful, they require deep pockets or ties to pull off. On the other hand, connecting your content with relevant and/or contemporary topics is much more viable for everyday use. There are some rules to integrating trending topics into your copy though… Join Wordsmith as we examine the dos and don’ts of pop culture references in writing.
The #trending culture
Just what is pop culture? And no, we don’t mean the culture behind fizzy drinks! Popular culture is defined as “cultural products(ie. music, art, literature, fashion, dance, film, cyberculture, television and radio) that are consumed by the majority of a society’s population – types of media that have mass accessibility and appeal”. Take Christopher Nolan’s latest espionage and time-bending filmTenet, for example, which has inspired Indian dairy company Amul to release one of theirquirky “topical” illustrationswith a pun on Indian actress Dimple Kapadia’s name, as well as anationwide filmmaker’s contestabout time manipulation sponsored by Warner Brothers Canada.
Over the past decade, pop culture has evolved. No longer just about media and culture, politics, sexual orientation and other formerly taboo topics have now entered pop culture. You’ve probably seen countless adverts taking swipes at US President Donald Trump by now (likevodka brand Smirnoffmocking the president’s alleged ties with Russia, orBurger King poking funat his lack ofspell checking in his tweets).
At a more local level, an advert byCathay Pacific depicting two men holding handswas originally banned by the MTR Corporation and Airport Authority for being “immoral”. However, the subway and airport came under fire for being bigoted by Hong Kong’s progressive population, and inspiredLGBT activists began sharing photos of themselves holding hands with their partnersat the MTR. The ban wasquickly overturned.
We’re no experts on politics or progressiveness, but sensitive subjects need to be dealt with carefully to avoid causing backlashes. Just because something is conversational and trending does not necessarily mean it’s wise to talk about it (especially for companies looking to protect brand reputations). For this reason, we suggest sticking with the traditional definition of pop culture when creating content… with the exception of President Trump, because honestly, he’s a goldmine of content.
How to use references that stick
To help us better understand how to reference pop culture in writing, let’s consultMaster Class. “Timeless works of literature are products of their era, and they include appropriate references while still achieving a sense of universality,” explainsMaster Class.When using pop culture with your content, its strength is dependent on two factors: (i) how well known the reference is, and (ii) its relevance to the time period. For example, the article features a video with teen horror novelist R.L. Stine, who comments that he once made “a Rick Astley concert” pop culture reference in one of hisFear Streetbooks in 1990.
“You need to be very careful about what you include in your books, because you don’t want to date your books,” says Stine. As you may know, Astley is an artist whose song “Never Gonna Give You Up” has become one of the greatest memes to date… but aside from that one song, few can name his other works. He may have been a music sensation in the 90s, but if you readFear Streetnow and saw his name, the book might feel rather outdated, wouldn’t you agree? Maybe Metallica would have been more appropriate, as the band has maintained relevance across the 90s and today!
To resonate with your readers through pop culture,Master Classrecommends these three tips:
1.Use pop culture references as supporting details
It’s easy to throw in pop culture references, but remember that you’re doing so to help your product or brand shine – focus the spotlight on your key selling points and not the reference itself. In television shows likeTheSimpsonsorFamily Guy, pop culture celebrities are often brought on as guests to help expand on jokes or to advance the plot.
For example, inThe Simpsonsepisode “Lisa the Vegetarian”, Lisa struggles with the morality of eating meat after befriending a small lamb. Aired in 1989,vegetarianism had grown beyond a fad in the United States and become a way of lifefor a significant number of households. The episode also guest starredPaul and Linda McCartney– two prominent advocates of vegetarianism. Were Paul and Linda the crux of the episode? No, it was mainly about Lisa dealing with her personal choices. Pop culture merely played a supporting role to show Lisa (and the audience) that it was okay not to eat meat.
2. Choose references that will stand the test of time
This tip is more applicable to aspiring novelists who want their novels to be relevant even decades into the future. Think J.K. Rowling’sHarry Potterseries – it’s still fun to reread and doesn’t feel dated, because there’s little to no pop culture from the human world holding it back (with the exception of Dudley’s PlayStation inThe Goblet of Fire). Instead, Rowling created her own celebrities, entertainment devices and sports teams for wizards and witches to laud over. Since we know next to nothing about these, they’ll always seem fun and fresh.
If you are in marketing or social media, much of your pop culture content will refer to contemporary topics. Check out fast food chainWendy’s twitter page. Given how many posts they release in a day, it’d be nigh impossible to only make posts that “stand the test of time”. Instead, consult a calendar to see what sort of events are happening around you or check the news about what’s trending. Say we’re in the food business… we would consider creating posts to encourage students studying for final exams (“Prepare for your exams better than President Trump prepared for the 2020 presidential debate with a study combo meal at Jimmy’s Pizzeria!”).
3. Include allusions to classic works of art
Works of art like Shakespeare’s plays, George Orwell’s novels or Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling are timeless – and because they are so well-recognised, their relevance transcends time. On the other hand, you could say that Kanye West is a pop culture sensation now, but whether he’s still celebrated decades into the future remains to be seen. Referencing the classics is a sure way to connect with a broad audience range (or take a swipe at President Trump – people won’t forget his “accomplishments” any time soon).
Sprinkling pop culture references in your writing is a quick and easy way to link your content with trending topics. Whether you are a small local firm or a multinational conglomerate, tapping into pop culture can help to increase your exposure and differentiate your brand’s unique voice. Just be sure that pop culture references don’t end up hogging the attention – save that for your client!