Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Let's ban the V-word from advertising

I mean "viral". It's tiresome, it's jargony, and it's over-promising.

According to YouTube, people are watching 2 billion videos a day on there and upload 24 hours of video every minute. That's a lot of competition. And yet agencies continue to promise clients a "viral campaign" as if it were just another media buy.

It used to be easier. In the early days, just about anything that was funny, shocking or moving was considered shareworthy. Remember Bride Has Massive Hair Wig Out?

That thing was great because it successfully recreated the schadenfreude viewers feel when they watch someone else's trainwreck. And many thought it was real, because it had no branding whatsoever. Instead, it was a brilliant strategy of making content that was newsworthy in itself, then reaping the earned media rewards once the jig was up.

But that golden age has passed. Now, ad agencies are trying to struggle with clients who don't have that kind of patience. They want their online videos to turn into commercials right away.

As an example, let me give you this one from The Viral Factory. It's cute, it's catchy, and it's kind of flawed. It doesn't know when it is supposed to be "reality" and when it's supposed to be staged. Almost from the start, the two pro dancers behind the little girl give the choreography away by anticipating her moves. It's just branded entertainment.

The same agency put out this very different, but highly amusing video playing on another of advertising's staples: boobs. It's bizarre, it's disturbing, and it's completely unique. But still a commercial.

The kid one has had over three and a half million views so far. Because people are suckers for kids, and Samsung really pumped budget into it. But is it "viral"? It has certainly spread electronically, as per the definition, but in the ancient days of the Internet, really good "virals" were unintentional successes. They spread because they accidentally spawned memes that were too interesting to ignore — often at the expense of their subject. An early (and cruel) example was the Star Wars kid. A recent one is Double Rainbow.

These ideas "went viral" not because of a marketing strategy, but simply because they had a special something that nobody can really plan. So agency people instead fall back on the ancient stables of babies and boobs to get attention and notoriety.

Not that these aren't skillfully done, mind you. But when the content comes out of a strategy, a professional production, and deliberate seeding to influential bloggers, I feel like we've got to call an ad an ad — no matter how stealthy or outrageous — and leave "virals" to the amateurs.

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