Democratic presidential candidate Mike Bloomberg is paying social media influencers to back him in the hope of reaching younger voters.
His campaign has commissioned some of the internet’s top-viral creators to generate content about him that has reached tens of millions of followers.
The former New York Mayor’s campaign director said its meme strategy was new to presidential politics.
He has already spent more than $300m in his bid to win the White House.
Mr Bloomberg, a former Republican, is one of eight remaining contenders vying to become the Democratic presidential candidate who will challenge President Donald Trump in November’s election.
Sabrina Singh, Mr Bloomberg’s national spokeswoman, said: “Mike Bloomberg 2020 has teamed up with social creators to collaborate with the campaign, including the meme world.
“While a meme strategy may be new to presidential politics, we’re betting it will be an effective component to reach people where they are and compete with President Trump’s powerful digital operation.”
What are the posts saying?
The campaign has been working with Meme 2020, a company that represents some of the biggest social media accounts in the so-called influencer economy.
@GrapeJuiceBoys – an account that often posts memes about black culture and has 2.7m followers – confirmed to the BBC it had produced paid content for the Bloomberg campaign, but said it did not personally endorse the candidate.
Posts about Mr Bloomberg have also appeared in @Tank.Sinatra (2.3m followers) and the account run by Jerry Media (14.9m followers), as well as several others.
The ads all show that they were paid for by the Bloomberg campaign, a disclaimer required under the US Federal Election Commission’s rules on paid online political posts.
Meanwhile, a post on Tribe – an online marketplace that connects “micro-influencers” (those with 1,000 to 100,000 followers) to brands – is advertising a $150 payment for posts supporting Mr Bloomberg.
It encourages influencers to mention why “we need a change in Government”.
“Be honest, passionate and be yourself!” the listing adds.
Food and travel blogger Alycia Chrosniak told Reuters news agency she had been offered money to post on Mr Bloomberg’s behalf, but chose not to do so.
“It feels weird to put out an ad supporting a person versus a product,” said Ms Chrosniak, who normally posts sponsored content for restaurants and hotels.
She said Mr Bloomberg was not her “top choice”.
This is not the first time that Mr Bloomberg’s campaign social media strategy has raised eyebrows.
During a Democratic debate in January, in which he failed to qualify for a spot, his campaign account tweeted fake “#BloombergFacts” including an image of the candidate’s face photoshopped on to a meatball.
Can Bloomberg meme himself to the White House?
By Marianna Brady, BBC Social reporter, Washington
Mike Bloomberg meme’s campaign is the most innovative digital strategy we’ve seen to connect with voters under the age of 25, who are notoriously hard to reach.
In the 2008 election, many candidates used Twitter to reach millennials. In 2016 candidates adopted Snapchat.
But targeting ads on Instagram meme accounts is a fresh tactic curated for Generation Z (those born in the late-1990s).
The Bloomberg digital team knows he can’t win this audience through television ads or on Facebook, as many Gen Z-ers prefer Instagram, Snapchat, VSCO and TikTok.
To put the size of the meme audience in perspective, the Oscars had 23.6 million viewers this year. Collectively, the accounts that posted the Bloomberg memes have over 60 million followers.
By asking the accounts to release the memes at the same time, in a two-hour period on Wednesday evening, the campaign ensured legions of young people who scroll Instagram accounts before going to sleep would learn his name.
A billionaire paying for memes could deter young people from voting for him, of course. But even if they don’t vote for Mr Bloomberg maybe their parents or grandparents will vote for him if the Gen Z-er who saw this content tell the oldies they thought it was cool.
By using self-deprecating humour and leaning into his billionaire status, he is positioning himself as the only person who can beat Donald Trump.
How much is Bloomberg spending?
Mr Bloomberg’s ad spending has so far out-paced Mr Trump’s, according to advertising data.
In the past two weeks alone, Mr Bloomberg has splurged more than $1m (£768,000) per day on Facebook ads, mostly targeting Super Tuesday states that will vote on 3 March.
That’s more than five times what Mr Trump has spent over the same period, according to NBC News.
According to Forbes, the co-founder of financial media company Bloomberg LP is worth $62bn. Mr Trump’s own fortune is estimated at $3.1bn.
Mr Trump disparaged his fellow New York billionaire on Thursday, tweeting: “Mini Mike Bloomberg is a LOSER who has money but can’t debate and has zero presence, you will see.”
In response, Mr Bloomberg said the people of New York City “laugh at you & call you a carnival barking clown”.
Earlier in the week, Mr Trump called Mr Bloomberg “a total racist” after an audio tape emerged of the former mayor making incendiary comments while defending the controversial “stop and frisk” policing policy.