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???? PROFIT!!!!, also known as the South Park Underpants Gnomes' Plan and Step 4: Profit, refers to numbered lists that explain how to reach a goal. However, in each of these lists, the primary component of the plan is replaced with a series of question marks, leading to the fourth step, which is profiting from the plan. People online use the format to mock ideas, whether for business or otherwise, that do not follow a logical path from inception to profitability. The template is:
1. Step one
2. Step two
On December 16th, 1998, Comedy Central aired the South Park episode "Gnomes." In the episode, the characters report that they are missing underpants and discover a society of tiny, magical gnomes who are stealing their undergarments for a supposed profit. When asked about their plan, the gnomes describe their method as, "Step 1: Collect underpants. Step 2." Step 3: Profit." The lack of step two indicates that they do not have an actual plan for monetizing their underpants collection (clip below).
References to the meme began almost as soon as the episode aired. One of the earliest available references to the scene appeared on the ArsTechnica.com forums on April 21st, 2004. The user Emkorial wrote, "You know, you see posts around that give 4 steps to somehting, 3 being "?" and 4 being "PROFIT!!!". I use them myself, for some reason, I find them freakin hilarious. Just got me thinking, where/how did that originate?"
The phrase "underpants gnomes" and variations of the format continued to see usage over the next two decades, using the format to mock illogical or incomplete business ideas. On April 10th, 2006, the website ConversionRater published the article, "Web 2.0: Underpants Gnomes Business Models." The article features a number of internet marketing plans from the mid-2000s that follow the South Park model. They wrote, "Most of us lived through it and saw what happened to companies with poor business models during the bubble, and it seems like a lot of the new web companies out there are spending less money, technology is cheap or free, and they are doing it with fewer employees. However, I still see way too many companies that are using the 'Underpants Gnomes Business Model.'"
Later that year, on December 18th, 2006, the blog crackedrabbitgaming published a post entitled "GameStop's Business Strategy." The post features a GameStop item for sale with two prices visible (shown below, left). They wrote, "Step 1: Buy cheap games from GameCrazy Step 2: Don’t bother to change the packaging Step 3: Raise the price, but don’t remove the old stickers, so customers can see themselves getting screwed Step 4: Profit!"
Two years later, an MIT blog published a series of variations of the format as part of a trivia game. The author posted clues in the form of the meme and asked participants to guess the answer based on the clues.
The criticism also extended to fictional business. On August 1st, 2010, Cracked  posted a variation about Weyland-Yutani Corp., the fictional company from the Alien films. They wrote, "1. Capture the universe's most dangerous, uncontrollable creature. 2. ??? 3. Profit" (shown below).
The meme dipped in popularity in the 2010s, but still occasionally resurfaced when a plan appeared difficult to parse. For example, on October 8th, 2016, Twitter  user @CollegeGameDay tweeted a person holding a sign that reads, "Tennessee Game Plan: 1. Half Time 2. ? 3. Miracle." The post received more than 1,200 likes and 570 retweets in less than five years (shown below).
 Ars Technica – Where did "1., 2., 3. ?, 4. PROFIT!!" come from?
 Conversion Rater – Web 2.0: Underpants Gnomes Business Models
 Cracked Rabbit Gaming – GameStop's Business Strategy
 MIT – These Ain't No Underpants Gnomes
 Cracked – Weyland-Yutani
 Twitter – @CollegeGameDay's Tweet
Sep 27, 2010 at 11:01PM EDT
Feb 17, 2021 at 12:38PM EST
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