Surfing the Subviral Wave

About a month ago, The Guardian caused a minor stir when it published an article about “subviral marketing,” a phenomenon in which advertisers deliberately release spoofs of their own ads to the Web in an effort to generate buzz. According to the article, brands such as Budweiser, Levis, Ford, and MasterCard have produced prank-like takeoffs of their own ads that usually tend toward the outrageous, from the supposed ultra-risqué Levis’s “Rub Yourself” spot to the many variations on the MasterCard “priceless” ads.

Although some of these may be real (nobody’s stepped up and claimed responsibility for many of these spots yet), others have turned out to be real hoaxes. The Levis’s prank apparently actually was a prank created by a semi-pro filmmaker (according to this posting on Drunk Guerilla). The Guardian was also quick to post a correction to the article when it turned out the supposed subviral “Big Brother” spot it mentioned was not sanctioned by the TV show.

Or was it? In the world of subviral marketing, protests by advertisers about the spoofs could very well be part of the game. It’s actually very post-modern, reflecting a metasensibility about advertising that goes far beyond the “breaking the fourth wall” self-referentiality of much of today’s nudge-nudge-wink-wink advertising. In a world where we all know we’re being sold to all the time by everything, acknowledging this fact has become a staple of the hip toolbox. Examples range from Sprite’s “Obey Your Thirst” campaign all the way to today’s outrageous video clips that circulate on the Net.

But does viral (sub- or not) marketing actually work? On the surface it’s a notion that makes marketers everywhere salivate: Create something on the cheap, pay nothing for distribution, and have it appear everywhere online in days as your potential customers do the work of passing it along by word of mouth. In the old days, these messages may have had to be carefully seeded to selected arbiters of online cool. Today, sites such as Lycos Viral Chart, Punchbaby, and iFilm serve as hubs for downloading and distributing viral clips. The phenomenon has even take hold enough for services such as eatmail.tv to be developed as hipster distribution hubs for new content.

At heart, viral marketing relies on the small-world phenomenon, something first noticed by psychologist Stanley Milgram in his famous < a href="http://smallworld.sociology.columbia.edu/description.html" target="_blank">experiment that first established the idea of six degrees of separation. The idea that all of us are connected by very few others took hold and has played itself out in everything from the “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” party game to applications such as the Oracle of Elvis. Theoretically, because all of us are so closely connected through networks (both social and electronic), a strong enough message should be able to reach just about everyone.

That’s the theory at least. Making it work is something else entirely. Some companies have had some success with viral marketing (Digital Media Communications (DMC) and The Viral Factory are two notable examples). Research companies such as Jupiter, which is owned by the parent company of this publication, and Forrester have exhorted marketers to use viral techniques as new ways of reaching customers. And we all know of plenty of colleagues who go off to e-marketing conferences and come back flush with excitement about “doing some viral stuff.”

But if the current buzz about subviral marketing is any indication, viral marketing may be an increasingly difficult proposition, one many companies need to look at long and hard before jumping on the current hype-wagon. Why? Several reasons:

  • “Cool” is tough. Nothing is worse than an ad trying to be cool but isn’t. What is cool? It’s hard to say, and that’s the problem. Trying to be cool usually leads to stuff that sounds like those “Hey, kids!” spots of yore. Unless you’re really, really, really in touch with pop culture, don’t even try… unless, of course, you’re so out of touch you become cool because you’re so not cool. You see the problem.

  • Online audiences are increasingly cynical. Once they got sucked in by viral. Then, when they bored of obviously viral stuff, it took subviral to hook them in. Now that they know (or at least suspect) they’re being manipulated by subviral, they’re going to think a few times before believing something is actually “subversive.”
  • The bar has been raised beyond the tolerance level of many companies. It used to be jokes about passing gas or double entendres would do the trick. But in the era of “South Park” and “Jackass,” you’ve got to be a lot more outrageous to get noticed. Do you think your CEO’s going to sign off on the next Mr. Hankey?
  • For this type of approach to work, irreverence must already be part of your brand… or you’d better be ready to make it part of your brand. Some brands just aren’t going to be helped by this approach.
  • Past performance is no indication of future results. This quote from Justin Kirby, managing director of DMC, found on Drunk Guerilla has some sage advice for those seeking to jump on the bandwagon:

    Another rife marketing misconception bandied about in the same breath as “viral” is that Flash-based games are the latest and greatest thing that will attract users like moths to a flame. The reality — according to the Lycos Viral Chart — is that Flash-based games are the least popular viral material, probably because there are so many of them out there and the vast majority are mediocre. You have to be more savvy, more innovative, more creative than everyone else to grab user attention and make them want to engage with your brand — even more so if you expect them to endorse your message and pass it on to others.

  • Nobody understands how this stuff works. Nobody. Creating a hot viral campaign has as much science behind it as creating a hit TV show. Plenty of ideas with all the characteristics of winners fail because they’re just missing that special something that makes ’em work. It really is voodoo at this point.

  • Unless you’ve got it built in to the campaign, tracking can be very tough. Very. And if you have tracking built in, somebody’s going to find it, and you’re going to ruin the street cred of your supposed underground campaign.

Of course, this doesn’t mean viral marketing doesn’t work. In some cases it does, extremely well. Just give it some serious thought before you decide you’re going to jump into the fray. Get yourself a hip agency, test your concepts on some real targets (not just your coworkers’ kids), and be prepared to surf the bleeding edge — viral marketing’s still the wild frontier of advertising.

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