Viral video has become world's best focus group

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A white-haired gentleman walks onto a darkened stage and begins to speak. As whispy images of children and puppies float on a screen behind him, he talks in velvet tones of the magic of memories captured on film, those ineffable Kodak moments.

But over the next three minutes, his sermon turns into a rant. The grandfatherly speaker turns into a wild-eyed maniac raving about the promise of digital photography, Eastman Kodak Co.'s past misses in the market and its determination not to make the same mistakes again.

A parody? In fact, the video was produced by Kodak, reportedly for internal distribution. But in December, it hit and became a cult classic. More than 210,000 people have watched it on YouTube alone and a search for "Kodak Winds of Change," the video's title, returns 861,000 results. Most of the blog and media commentary has praised Kodak for its honesty and humor. Kodak, which entered the blogosphere in December, gets it.

Whether the video's release was accidental or purposeful, the outcome has been a public relations windfall for Kodak, which had suffered from the image of still being in denial about new technology. It's also a lesson for marketers: A willingness to laugh at yourself combined with a video camera can make you a social media icon.

Blendtec is an Orem, Utah-based maker of high-powered blenders for home and commercial use. A few months ago, the company whipped up the idea of videotaping founder Tom Dickson pulverizing unusual items with his company's product. He started with golf balls and marbles but quickly moved on to footballs, magnets, toy cars and dozens of other items. Dickson's deadpan sincerity is part of the charm, and the series is a megahit. More than 2.6 million YouTube viewers tuned in just to watch him turn an iPod to dust.

And then there's what happens when you drop Mentos breath mints into a bottle of Diet Coke. The carbonated geyser that results has captivated amateur videographers, hundreds of whom have uploaded videos of their experiments. Mentos has reported a 15% jump in sales. Coke ignored the viral phenomenon for several months but is now promoting a copycat contest on its Web site.

Humor is a tried-and-true staple of advertising, but corporations have historically been all too reluctant to laugh at their own expense. New channels offer a chance to change all that. Whether it's tapping into a grassroots phenomenon or quietly slipping a self- deprecating message into the public domain, the opportunity is now there to make a point without drawing too much attention to yourself.

Yet incredibly, fewer than 1% of YouTube videos are created by businesses, according to some estimates. That's the missed opportunity of a lifetime, because YouTube and its brethren are the greatest advertising focus group ever invented. The risk is so small and the upside is so big. Just ask Blendtec.

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