Ever since he electrocuted Ash Ketchum in the first episode of “Pokémon” back in 1997, Pikachu earned his place in the hearts of the general public — both the kids and adults. Anyone who has watched the anime series or played the evolving “Pokémon” games has a soft spot for the yellow mouse-like Pokémon and his powerful electrical abilities.
Given the immense popularity and longevity of the series, it’s no surprise that Pikachu has also been the star of many memes. The latest and most popular one, for some reason, is a screengrab from the original ‘90s Pokémon anime series.
You know that one: the Surprised Pikachu meme.
Where Does Surprised Pikachu Come From?
The meme is a screenshot of a surprised-looking Pikachu from Season 1, Episode 10 “Bulbasaur and the Hidden Village.” Not everyone remembers why he’s shocked but the premise of the meme is simple — a person does something that has an obvious outcome, and then they express surprise at the results (that were bound to happen).
The shocked Pikachu meme made its first appearance on Tumblr on September 26, 2018. A user named popokko posted the Pikachu meme face and gained more than 200,000 notes. In her online interview with KnowYourMeme.com Tumblr user popokko (whose real first name is Angela; her last name was not included in the interview) said that her love for “Pokémon” gave birth to the Surprised Pikachu meme.
In 2017, Angela was rewatching the original “Pokémon” anime and noticed that Pikachu “looked a bit…off” in most of his scenes. So she started screen grabbing all the scenes where the beloved Pokémon was off-model so she could make a compilation post on Tumblr. Included in her group of photos was the Surprised Pikachu. Coincidentally, it was the only screenshot she kept.
Fast forward to 2018, she had a post saved in her Tumblr drafts that needed a reaction image to go along with it. The original joke was about purposely bending an object that you knew would break if you bend it, yet still being shocked that it bent. Angela went through her files and decided the surprised Pikachu face would fit well. So, she posted it and the rest was history.
The Spread of the Surprised Pikachu Meme
After the Surprised Pikachu meme gained traction on Tumblr, the post began spreading to other websites in the following days. On September 30, Pikachu and his shocked face appeared on the reddit trend /r/MemeEconomy and gained 880 points. On October 2, the meme was posted on a Facebook meme page and gained more than 3,000 reactions and likes and 4,000 shares. By October 14, a new post using the same format gained 3,900 points. Ten days later, a similar post using the Surprised Pikachu face was blurred to make a point about the prolonged effects of computer use on your eyesight.
The Pikachu meme format also appeared on other websites and subreddits. For instance, a Game of Thrones post on the subreddit /r/freefolk gained 20,000 points.
By 2019, the Surprised Pikachu meme was so popular that it reached a point of suspension. On March 16, a Twitter user reported that tweeting the shocked Pikachu face would get users suspended for gore. The report was confirmed by other users, saying that only posting the original blurred version of the meme causes on-site suspensions. By March 18, Twitter no longer suspended users who posted the Pikachu meme.
The creator of the meme, Angela, heard about the bizarre series of Twitter suspensions. When asked about why it was suspended, she speculated that mass-reporting may have been the primary culprit, although she couldn’t guess why it would be mass reported. She also attributed it to an error in Twitter’s algorithm.
Surprised Pikachu and The Supposed Stealth Marketing Campaign
On October 2020, online news magazine Wired published a piece that suggested the Surprised Pikachu meme was a stealth marketing campaign.
Writer Gareth Morinan estimated the relative popularity of meme templates — meme photos like the “Distracted Boyfriend” and “Surprised Pikachu” that are overlaid with text and shared to different social media platforms. Using the data from Nielsen ratings and his knowledge as a data scientist, Morinan created a system that would analyze the popularity of memes.
His meme system was simple: he would download some of the most popular memes posted online and run them through a machine-learning classification model to determine whether the template had been used in all images (you can see the data he used here). He ran the analysis throughout 2018, downloading 400,000 images and creating a chart of the top memes of the year. The chart showed that the popular Drake’s Preference meme was the most popular. But Morinan thought the fourth placer, the Surprised Pikachu, was a suspicious runner.
The timeline of the shocked Pickahu meme’s popularity sparked his interest. According to Morinan, the number of people using and viewing spiked in the first half of November 2018. During that week, the trailer for the live-action Pokémon film “Detective Pikachu” was also released. In the trailer, there was a shot of a shocked live-action Pikachu with the same surprised expression as the meme. This convinced Morinan that the surge of the Surprised Pikachu’s popularity is due to Warner Bros. promoting the film.
However, he was still suspicious.
According to Morinan, the first trailer for “Detective Pikachu” came out on November 12. Prior to the trailer’s release, no one knew about the film. Yet the Surprised Pikachu meme’s popularity began to soar more than a week before, reaching the peak height on November 10. The trailer couldn’t have contributed to the rapid popularity of the shocked Pikachu meme. For this reason, Morinan called the event a “remarkable coincidence;” a successful Pikachu meme became viral again in the week the marketing for “Detective Pikachu” began.
Coincidence or Stealth Marketing?
Out of the 10 viral memes of that week, nine peaked within a week or two. The one meme that stood out the most was Pikachu’s surprised face. Pikachu peaked in 26 days and had a shallow gradient during its first 19 days before exploding in fame. Morinan considered it odd viral meme behavior. Regular marketing campaigns often have target dates in mind; the Surprised Pikachu meme seemed to be a part of a secret marketing campaign no one saw coming — aka a stealth marketing move, in Morinan’s opinion.
Stealth marketing, also called buzz marketing, is a strategy that advertises products and services to an audience with the audience not knowing that they are being marketed to. There are many stealth marketing techniques, the most common being undercover marketing or product placements (in movies and TV shows). The primary purpose of stealth marketing isn’t to generate sales ASAP but to stir up excitement and interest, ensuring consumers will respond eagerly to direct advertising later. This type of small-scale “manipulation” may have been around for a while, with companies paying other companies to use memes and social media posts.
This is what makes Pikachu memes (and other meme pictures, for that matter) appealing for stealth marketing: since many memes are heavily integrated into pop culture already, no one notices the marketing move. Audiences think they’re just sharing memes when in reality, they’re being conditioned to anticipate the release of “Detective Pikachu.” Instead of painstakingly creating videos for awareness, Warner Bros. may have just used memes.
Meme-based marketing might be a gamble but the high risk guarantees a promising reward. For instance, “Detective Pikachu’s” marketing team had a budget of $100,000, which funds the team and the campaigns. In terms of advertising on Facebook, each ad costs $10 per thousand views. So, if the shocked Pikachu meme got 100 million views, that’s a million dollars worth of publicity. Talk about impressive visual influence on marketing.
And yet, Morinan was unable to prove his stealth marketing theories. His interview with Surprised Pikachu meme creator Angela threw a wrench at his claims. But he continues to believe that Pikachu had a successful stealth marketing run during 2018.
Whether it’s just a normal meme or part of a bigger stealth marketing campaign, there’s no doubt that the Surprised Pikachu meme is a testament to the Internet’s power in all things viral or business branding. So, when Pikachu trends again or when something new happens online, we’re sure to have our Surprised Pikachu faces and memes ready.