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The dirty little secret of the world’s greatest meme
The dirty little secret of the world’s greatest meme

It is one of the greatest memes of all time. And it’s a complete fluke.

Keep Calm and Carry On. The epitome of Britain’s wartime spirit, which found its moment in the financial crisis of 2008. It just seemed to capture a British sense of stoicism and determination that also felt right to anybody who was discombobulated by the world’s financial system going into freefall.

Except it’s all based to on a myth. That poster was never published. Here’s the story.

In 1939, the Ministry of Information commissioned 3 posters to reassure the populace in the event of the outbreak of war.

They were:

Freedom is in peril, defend it with all your might

Your courage, your cheerfulness, your resolution will bring us victory

Keep calm and carry on

The first two were issued, and were met with a hail of abuse (or for what passed for one in those pre-social media days). They were seen as patronising and unBritish.

Keep Calm and Carry On is a much pithier forms of words, but a similar sentiment, so we can’t know for sure how it would have fared. We were never to find out though because the Ministry was taken aback by the outcry and pulped them.

Back from the grave

A few must have survived because in 2000, Stuart Manley, a bookseller in Alnwick, on the northeast coast of England, found the poster at the bottom of a box of second-hand books. He framed it and put it up in his shop, and though it wasn’t on sale, people kept on wanting to buy it. So Stuart thought, I’ll print a few off (it was out of copyright) and they kept selling, so he printed some more and started selling online.

The big jump came when The Guardian featured in it an article, and then they found themselves getting orders of 10,000 a month. Stuart says: “That’s when it started going national, international, all over the world. It begat so many things. It’s not just the T-shirts and the mugs; there was a Keep Calm book, birthday cards, Christmas cards, there were so many things. Even condoms!”

You can get the full story in the marvellous podcast, The Allusionist.

20 years on, and nothing can kill this meme.

What’s the formula? What makes it such a winner? Of course, there isn’t one. As Hollywood screenwriter, William Goldman, famously said of the film business, Nobody Knows Anything. We can pretend there is a science to this – that if you do enough focus groups, you’ll find the magic formula. But that’s not how it works.

It’s like catching lightning in a bottle – it’s not a predictable, or repeatable process.

Does that mean it’s completely random – that you might as well do any old rubbish, because Nobody Knows Anything?

William Goldman wasn’t arguing against talent, skill, experience and judgement.

He was saying that some humility wouldn’t go amiss.

In that spirit, be open to learning. Recognising that there isn’t a magic formula is actually liberating. You don’t have to chase something that doesn’t exist.

You’re not going to get a viral hit every time, or maybe, any time. If you are smart about your communications – creative, engaging – and are open to learning, then great success is certainly possible. But it isn’t magic. If magic happens, chances are it’s a fluke.


Michael Isaacs

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