F You Baltimore! A Study in Memes

 

“Fuck you Baltimore! If you’re dumb enough to buy a new car this weekend, you’re a big enough schmuck to come to Big Bill Hell’s Cars!”

And so begins the infamous “Big Bill Hell’s” video, more commonly known as “F You Baltimore.” The minute-long, fake advertisement has been somewhat of a media phenomenon, surviving and growing over the transition from offline video to the age of the internet, and still thriving today.

Although there is a great deal of mystery surrounding its creation, the identities of the writer and the narrator in the video, for example, are still unknown, the video was believed to have been created in 1990 “for a faux award show put on by the Advertising Association of Baltimore called The Ad Follies” [1]. Because of the overtly offensive nature of the video and the possibility of legal action from those the video was intended to mock, the video was not released to the public. Only those who had worked on the production or those who got copies at the screening got possession of the video. However, the video spread nonetheless [1].

Before it was easy to share videos on the internet on sites like YouTube or Vimeo, this required actually copying the vhs tapes and exchanging them, something that would likely be regarded as a ludicrously slow and cumbersome way of sharing a video in current times. And yet, it happened, and happened on a large scale.

When the internet did become an easy way of sharing videos, the video started popping up online, posted by a number of different users. Although the video was already viral, its growth accelerated online, catching the attention of sites like collegehumor.com, getting featured in a number of other video productions (Toys Gone Wild, for example) and eventually racking in millions views on YouTube.

“F You Baltimore” is a prime example of what is known as a meme in modern society. Cracked.com defines a meme (pronounced “meem”) as “a meaningless phrase, image or joke getting repeated endlessly for no reason at all” [2]. Memes have been around far longer than the internet. In fact, people have been generating and spreading memes in various forms essentially since humans have been communicating with one another. The “Sator Square,” for example, a palindrome composed of a square of rather meaningless text (translated “The sower is at the plow”), has been around since ancient times, and has appeared everywhere from stone carvings in Oppede, France, to an abbey in Capestrano, Italy, to wood cabins in Tennessee. There are plenty of other more modern pre-internet memes as well. Shepard Fairey’s “Andre the Giant Has a Posse” stencil image, for example, which later evolved to only be captioned with “Obey,” and the viral graffiti drawing “Kilroy was Here,” which features a cartoon character with his nose poking over the top of a wall [2].

The internet naturally changed everything. People living in modern times hardly need reminding of Rick Astley’s “Never Gonna Give You Up” popping up in the place of the video they thought they were going to see, “This is Sparta” remixes, and “lolcats” talking in hilariously adorable improper english. The list goes on and on.

With the internet, everything became, of course, immediately accessible and interconnected, and as a result, memes gained the ability to pick up speed and spread very quickly. A very different time from the pre-internet years certainly. That “F You Baltimore has survived this transition, and flourished in both worlds is really noteworthy.

-Victor Fink

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[1] DomDaDude, . “Big Bill Hell’s.” Know Your Meme. Cheezburger, Inc, 2011. Web. 18 Apr 2012.

[2] della Quercia, Jacopo. “7 Memes That Went Viral Before the Internet Existed.” Cracked.com. Demand Media, Inc., 11 004 2011. Web. 18 Apr 2012.

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