Marketers, Take Note: Emoji Meanings Are Changing

It may be hard to believe it’s a thing, but World Emoji Day was “celebrated” (is that the right word for it?) on July 17. Still, for anyone over the age of 40 or so, the fact that this rudimentary, sometimes confounding, symbol language -- started in Japan in 1999 --  has its own day is enough to trigger a flurry of eye-roll emojis.

But emojis are serious business in 2021, and marketers need to be aware of what these seemingly innocent images hiding inside our phone’s keyboard actually mean -- and how context fits into that understanding.

That was never more apparent than recently in the U.K. when, following England’s football team losing the EURO championship, a wave of disgusting racist epithets were posted on the social media accounts of three Black English players: Bukayo Saka, Jadon Sancho and Marcus Rashford.

Accompanying the awful hate speech were repeated uses of the monkey and banana emojis. The abuse was so bad that the term “Saka’s Instagram” began trending on Twitter as commentary escalated about people being so openly racist.



There have been calls to ban the monkey emoji for years. The bottom line is, emoji meanings vary, and marketers and brands’ social media managers need to exercise caution with them.

Emojis are not just happy or sad faces or fruits and vegetables. Today, they contribute to conversations in different ways. Symbolically, they communicate identity by drawing from old symbolism -- like the rose emoji, which is tied to antiauthoritarian labor movements going back to the 18th century. More notoriously, we all now know that that frog emoji known as “Pepe” represents a lot more than just a frog since being adopted by the alt right in the U.S.

Moreover, emojis today can signal particular subcultures, like the ape emoji (a reference to a meme taken from the movie “Rise of the Planet of the Apes”) signifying WallStreetBets, a subculture of investors that played a role in the recent overvaluing of stocks for companies like GameStop. Similarly, a baseball cap emoji is a new iteration of a community-specific term in hip hop that means “lie” or “BS.”

Language is always changing to adapt to cultural shifts. Merriam Webster adds many new words to the dictionary every year. Since emojis are also a language, meanings change over time and new emoji are added to reflect changes in culture as well.

For example, the popular “crying/laughing” emoji has been replaced by Gen-Zers with a skull emoji or “I’m dead” as a substitute. The two fingers touching emoji is used to show feeling shy, or timid. And the brain emoji -- well, let’s just say it has nothing to do with intelligence (on platforms like TikTok, this emoji represents "giving head.")

Brands need to be aware of these shifts in emoji use to better understand what is being said about their brand and products. Moreover, if brands are looking to create a credible voice online, they need to understand the context surrounding emojis. After all, it’s possible that baseball cap emoji may just be referring to your favorite American pastime.

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