Behind the Epidemic of Lousy Viral Campaigns

Me-too-itis Hobbles Too Many Marketers' Efforts

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Most of the online viral campaigns you hear about and see these days have one thing in common: They suck.
Folgers' is one example of a bad idea turned into a viral campaign. Georgia-Pacific's Brawny Academy, Nissan's living-in-a-Sentra, and Hewlett-Packard's skunk let loose in a coffeehouse video are others.
Folgers' is one example of a bad idea turned into a viral campaign. Georgia-Pacific's Brawny Academy, Nissan's living-in-a-Sentra, and Hewlett-Packard's skunk let loose in a coffeehouse video are others.

On the surface, this isn't surprising. Most of everything sucks, from films to books to TV shows to, of course, ads. Which is why those that don't tend to stand out.

But too many of these sponsored viral-video (and fake-blog and social-networking) thingies really, really suck, and there's a reason for that: They are not the end result of an actual idea or strategy but are born of a desperate desire to do something, anything, in the new-media space.

Yes, it's the dreaded "GMOOT" syndrome, short for "Get me one of those," the basic command from CEOs to CMOs or CMOs to their agencies. It sounds oversimplistic, but if you get a few drinks into a marketing exec, he'll admit that at some point he's been directed to do something because his boss read about it in Ad Age or saw that a rival company was doing it or was told by his neighbor during the commute in from Greenwich that he had to get in the game.

'The boys on the 6:12'
I first noticed this circa 1995, when the cry was, "Get me a website!" Why? "I don't know, because everyone's got one." A few years later it was, "We need to do something in branded entertainment!" Great, what's the concept? "How do I know? I just want to be able to tell the boys on the 6:12 that we're on the cutting edge. They're all doing it." You could probably trace this all the way back to Adam, who bit the apple because Eve did. It was a bad idea then, and still is today.

For a prime example, pull up your browser right now (I'll wait) and type in This is Folgers' attempt to appear cool and ironic by offering slow risers such appealing goodies as a wake-up call on their mobile phone from "Lucy," billed as a "sexy way to rise and shine (for the fellas)," or a "boss tracker," in case you want to catch a few z's at your desk. The fact that it's meant to be tongue-in-cheek makes it somehow sadder, like a dad trying to act cool in front of his teenage daughter's friends (aside to my daughter, Molly: Sorry).

You can imagine the pitch meeting: "So people will come to the site and get a good laugh and realize that we understand them and how much they hate mornings, and the next time they're in a grocery store, they'll buy Folgers brand coffee because they'll see it as another tool to help them tolerate mornings." What you can't imagine is someone signing off on it.

Bad ideas gone viral
It's somewhat unfair to single out P&G's Folgers, though, because there are plenty of other bad examples, including Georgia-Pacific's Brawny Academy, Nissan's guy who lived in his car for a week and Hewlett-Packard's viral video for its "Over the Hedge" tie-in showing a skunk let loose in a coffeehouse.

Of course there have been some hits as well. Chevy's willingness to allow negative user-generated ads for its Tahoe stands out, as do Axe's brilliant Gamekillers and the hilarious Shave Everywhere site for Norelco's Body Groomer.

As with ads in any medium, those that work are those that start with an insight, show an understanding of their target audience, and have an authentic, relevant connection to the brand. Those that don't smack of having been produced because someone wanted to do a viral video to please himself, his boss or his board. They're the commercial equivalent of YouTube videos of kids falling off skateboards.

I've loudly encouraged experimentation with new media forms, and believe marketers are better off taking risks than they are sitting around waiting for industrywide standards and measurement metrics to catch up. Permission to fail is essential. But none of these forms will earn respect as a legitimate marketing tool until it's approached with respect and discipline. Doing something just to do something still leads to nothing.
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