Project Baby Slobs Shows That Sharing Works Better Than Branding

But Marketers Are too Tied to Metrics to Truly Grasp Power of Viral

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There will be a moral to this story, but first I must report that my adorable twin grandsons, bless their hearts, have had a touch all week of something viral.

Closing in on a half million views, all told. Yeah, babies Oren and Oscar are the stars of "Twins Eating Lunch," which has racked up 200,000 look-sees on Yahoo, 8,400 on Buzzfeed, 106,000 on YouTube and another 152,000 on the YouTube channel dedicated to the Ellen DeGeneres show. So far.

The 22 -second clip opens with a phone-cam view of Oren, age 7 months, after a meal of strained blueberries and sweet potato. He's got a shadow of lunch around his mouth, but just a shadow. Basically, he looks like Fred Flintstone. In the background, you hear my son-in-law, Josh, say, "Oren, you're a mess. . . . Actually, you look pretty clean in comparison."

Then Josh pans right to Oscar, whose face is entirely, hilariously smeared, especially his eyebrows. It looks like a sweet potato masque. Josh instantly loses it, breaking out in his notably squeaky laugh. Oscar doesn't react, though. He simply stares at the camera, utterly phlegmatic, looking not like Fred Flintstone at all but like Winston Churchill -- after a pie-eating contest. Meanwhile, Josh is still cracked up. "Oscar," he giggles, "you are soooo bad at eating."

That's it, just a messy slice of life that has captured the imagination of hundreds of thousands of people, including DeGeneres, "Good Morning America" and "Tosh.0." But of all the untold jillions of baby videos on YouTube, why would this one break out? It's not as though there were a glimpse of Sasquatch in the background, or a kitten on a sliding board. It's just two oddly impassive babies and an unseen cackling dad.

The explanation? Human intervention.

It just so happens that Josh's sister, Miry Whitehill, is in the video-seeding business. She works in the West Hollywood office of the New York social-media agency the Jun Group, which works for the likes of Kraft Foods, NBC Universal, Procter & Gamble and Unilever. After my daughter Katie was persuaded to post the family-fave clip on YouTube, Miry got busy. She was curious, she says, for a firsthand glimpse of video sharing minus any brandedness or paid seeding.

"This is the first time I ever distributed one that was just, 'Oh! Look how cute this is !'

"It didn't happen in a vacuum," she concedes, but, by the same token, she spent not a dime and called in no favors. "Since I work in the video space, I didn't want to use any professional contacts. I wanted to see what a random person could do with a cute video. I went across every single mom blog that I knew about and started submitting it everywhere."

It has since landed on Yahoo's This Week in MOM; Shine from Yahoo; Lite FM, Chicago; Tosh.0; The Hairpin; The Slacker Mom; Rukkle The Midweek Playpen;; The Viral Trend; Nick Mom; Right This Minute; Vidster; and, courtesy of my daughter Allie,

Plus , of course, Israeli television. Duh.

"It's just this free-for-all internet lovefest," Miry says, somehow amazed and amused that the virality she is paid to spawn is actually, you know, possible. "It's really, really exciting. I'm a little jealous because Oscar and Oren's resumes are now way more impressive than mine."

Ha ha. At this point in our conversation, my seeder-in-law is on a roll. She's thinking big, and I'm sure not going to try to stop her: "Honestly, this is just the beginning. Once you get to a certain level of views, the video will just grow on its own." Five hundred thousand is nice, but why not a million? Why not 10 million. "If we had Beyonce in the video," Miry muses, "we could get to 10 million by next week. . ."

At which point reality-based imagining resumes: ". . .but we have two babies covered with food."

That reality check included some meditation on why such an ordinary, Beyonce-and-Sasquatch-less video can so catch on while others, manufactured at significant expense by ad agencies the world over for the explicit purpose of going viral so often just languish on YouTube's servers undisturbed unless firms like the Jun Group strategically seed them at still more expense. One of the big impediments, Miry explains, is brandedness itself. People are wary of it and often hesitant to pass even clever would-be virals along. One reason she so enjoyed Project Baby Slobs was to investigate, "If you take branding out of the picture, what does that unleash?"

Which finally gets to the moral of the story. What this all tells me is that brands shouldn't be tasking anyone to create branded videos contrived to catch fire online. They should do what Ellen DeGeneres does: scour the internet for videos they'd like to share with the communities they are interested in, and invest their seeding money in those. This is the stuff of the Relationship Era; it's not selling, but sharing. It's finding common ground and passing along a funny or relevant vid, just like friends do. Also, ahem, the content is free.

Miry warns that clients will resist, because they won't be able to isolate the return on their seeding investment from any given natural-born video's organic virulence. I say, "So what?" The extraordinary value of social sharing is being squandered while marketers grasp for engagement metrics they are destined never to find -- even as they also squander money on thinly-veiled ads destined to gather e-dust.

In short, it's time to go natural. Which, at least in this case, would be fine for Miry. The call from "GMA" was nice, she says, "but I'm waiting to hear from Pampers or Huggies."

Then, another thoughtful pause: "Or Claussen pickles. That would be fine as well."

Bob Garfield, now a consultant, has reported on advertising, marketing and media for 28 years.
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