Amazon is home to thriving businesses that turn TikTok memes into merchandise

Key Points
  • Amazon has become a hotspot for e-commerce businesses looking to make a quick buck off of internet memes.
  • Many of the memes are made popular by users on TikTok, Instagram, Reddit and other social media platforms.
  • Amazon makes it easy for sellers to create shirts using its Merch by Amazon program, which will print and ship shirts for a cut of sales.

Can I get a vibe check? More like, can I get a paycheck?

On Amazon, you can.

The sprawling e-commerce site that sells everything from furniture to pet supplies has also become home to a busy community of meme merchandisers looking to make a quick buck off of popular internet slang phrases like "Vibe check."

Vibe check, which essentially equates to a wellness check-in from a friend, is just one of many memes made popular on social media platforms like TikTok, Facebook's Instagram, Reddit or Twitter and is now being monetized via merchandise on Amazon. Other memes like "Yeet," "I'm baby" and, of course, "OK boomer" are plastered across T-shirts, sweatshirts, hats and socks, forever immortalized despite the internet's increasingly short attention span.

Elsewhere, shoppers can buy a T-shirt that says "Respect the drip, Karen," a meme popularized on TikTok. In the video, a teen instructs Karen (a moniker that makes fun of a particular type of Generation X woman) to respect his outfit. Slang terms used both on and off TikTok, like "and I oop," which is used when someone catches you by surprise, and "bet," a replacement for "OK sure," are also inscribed on T-shirts.

An example of a "Respect the Drip, Karen" sweatshirt sold on Amazon.

Finding the next best meme to monetize requires sellers to remain tapped into the places where users, often members of Generation Z (age 22 and under), are sharing them.

For Jonathan Garriss, CEO of novelty merchandise maker Gotham City Online, that means paying less attention to Facebook, which he said has become saturated with outdated memes. Instead, he relies on staff who frequent more youth-oriented spaces, like Reddit, while monitoring search trends to see what's gaining popularity.

"We try to find memes that have a little more staying power," Garriss said. "There are things that are popular this week and not popular the next. We try to avoid those."

Gotham City Online sells novelty T-shirts via its subsidiary, Pop Threads, on Amazon. Aside from retro and pop culture inspired gear, Pop Threads sells clothing that references popular memes, including Crying Michael Jordan, "Here Comes Dat Boi" and Kermit the Frog sipping tea.

An example of a "Yeet" shirt sold by Pop Threads.

While the company dabbles in meme merchandise, it doesn't represent the majority of Gotham City's sales because "it's tough to have a business that just chases those trends," Garriss said.

Online clothing retailer Shirtwascash has witnessed meme merchandising evolve over the years since the site launched in 2014. The site started by crowdsourcing memes from 4chan, then Reddit and later expanded to include original designs.

Shirtwascash Founder Ardon Lukasiewicz, who goes by the pseudonym Based anon, said he doesn't sell his merchandise on Amazon because he likes to remain "under the radar" to avoid copycats. The site offers T-shirts with classic memes like poorly drawn Sonic and the Shiba Inu doge, but also offers merchandise with newer memes including the conspiracy theory meme "Jeffery Epstein didn't kill himself" and "OK boomer."

Like other retailers, Lukasiewicz tries to choose memes that he feels will last more than a couple days or weeks. Taking a "fast fashion approach" to meme merchandise is often a gamble, he said. In some cases, meme merchandise can extend the shelf-life of a certain topic, as is the case with the Epstein merchandise, or it can shed light on an important issue.

"The OK boomer meme is a rare meme that's actually kind of important," Lukasiewicz said. "The general use is annoying, but I personally think it shows that boomers, which aren't necessarily an age group as much as an ideology, should join us in the digital age so that it's not just young people trying to create change."

An example of an "OK Boomer" Christmas sweater sold by Shirtwascash.

Meme merchandise isn't new. The stuff has been sold via print-on-demand sites like CafePress or Redbubble for at least the last five years. The sites allow users to upload an image and have it printed on clothing, pillows, tapestries and other items.

Amazon made its first foray into the print-on-demand T-shirt business when it launched Merch By Amazon in 2015. Sellers can upload an image for free, then Amazon lists the item and handles all the backend processes, including printing, packing and shipping, in exchange for a cut of each sale. The program became invite-only after Amazon received an overwhelming number of submissions from sellers.

Merch By Amazon can be more cost-efficient than a seller handling the process on their own. It also prevents wasted inventory, since the company only sells the T-shirts that shoppers want to buy.

Garriss said print-on-demand services like Merch By Amazon have made it easier to try out different memes and see what sticks, instead of wasting money and time on merchandise that flops after a meme flames out.

"If we create a design that doesn't work, it's not like we've got a thousand shirts sitting on the shelves," Garriss said. "We produce them as they start to sell."

Copyright and trademark laws have made it so that some memes are harder to monetize, such as those that use imagery from the video game "Fortnite," which is copyrighted. However, there may be more opportunities to make merchandise off of internet slang.

If a popular word or phrase hasn't been trademarked, it's fair game for many merchandisers to put on a T-shirt. That could be one reason why merchandise from memes made popular by the likes of TikTok has exploded on Amazon, spawning dozens of listings for nearly-identical T-shirts that say "Yeet" in block letters across the chest.

"It may be that [sellers] realized that with this stuff, it's more open because it hasn't been copyrighted," said Jennifer Grygiel, a social media professor at Syracuse University. "Or they might be able to make quick sales before anyone tries to bring it under their control legally."

Print-on-demand services like Merch By Amazon insulate sellers from the whims of the fast-paced meme economy, a trend that Lukasiewicz said is unlikely to change anytime soon.

"That's one of the reasons why I like memes to begin with," Lukasiewicz said. "Their life cycle is very short most of the time but it's because it connects in some cultural way and that process is just better off with as few restrictions as possible."

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