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“PROFIT” is used in numbered lists to explain how to reach a goal. The basic template is:
1. Step one
2. Step two
This meme comes directly from South Park‘s season 2, episode 17 (30th in total) which aired on December 16th, 1998. In this particular episode, the children’s underwear are being stolen from them by gnomes for the purpose of “profit.”
The process, as explained by thee gnomes goes something like this.
Step 1. Collect underpants.
Step 2. ?
Step 3. PROFIT
The gnomes lack of a business plan is used as a foil to the other main theme of the episode, a focus on large corporations. While the character Tweek’s parents are busy trying to figure out how their small coffee shop will compete with the giant Harbuck’s corporation (Starbucks Parody) the Gnomes illustrate a satire on crazy, unfounded money-making schemes.
Almost as soon as the episodes had aired, journalists were already using the South Park reference to describe the shortcomings of companies that failed in the big dot com collapse. In short, those who failed to develop a coherent strategy for collecting profit were behaving like Underpants Gnomes.
Today, the meme is typically used in forums or comments sections as a response that implies sarcastic disregard for the utility or purpose of a post.The fact that this behavior has had such a huge staying power online and also outside of the context of South Park is what makes this an Internet Meme.