There’s a Serious Business Behind Funny Viral Videos

The Web is flooded with branded videos attracting rapt attention and millions of views from consumers through viral distribution. Many of the most popular viral videos are humorous. It’s not a new concept, but the notion of producing funny video clips on behalf of brands in the hopes of obtaining viral buzz has become an advertising discipline in its own right.

“On the Internet you have two or three seconds to hook somebody in, and humor is a good way to do it,” said Tommy Means, partner and director of Mekanism, a San Francisco-based creative production shop that works with clients including Microsoft, EA, and Nike. Means discussed humorous branded video on Thursday’s “Just for Laughs” Advertising Week panel, moderated by comedian Susie Essman, who plays the merciless Susie Greene on HBO’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”

Although there are several factors that determine viral video proliferation, firms like Mekanism take a strategic approach to ensuring branded videos get the attention of the right people. “We guarantee the viral-ity of what we create,” said Means. The company seeds videos through a network of around 100 people with their own YouTube channels — people Mechanism believes are influential enough to push content beyond the clutter.

Sites like The Onion and CollegeHumor take a serious approach to integrating their brands of humor with sponsors. According to Josh Abramson, co-founder and president of CollegeHumor, the same editorial staff that creates the site’s original videos and other content creates advertorial content. “We have the same editorial filter,” he said.

The site injected a reference to the Colgate Wisp, a mini travel toothbrush for breath-freshening, into its “Real Life Twitter” video. The clip featured a guy roaming the streets while blurting out random comments, such as “Nine dollars for organic spinach? Give me a break!” and “Just tried this new Colgate Wisp. Anyone want a kiss?”

The most rapidly spreading viral videos tend to involve one or all of just a few elements including humor, stunts, cool special effects, or sheer shock value. All show up in the most recent list of top viral advertising videos as measured by Visible Measures.

New additions to the list from Norton Internet Security and Bud Light Lime have made the rounds across the Web in recent weeks because, well, a lot of people think they’re funny. The Norton clip, produced by Leo Burnett, Chicago, features the mostly-forgotten ’80s metal band Dokken and a whole roaster chicken wielding a knife. It garnered over 277,000 views during the week ending Sept. 14, according to the research firm. The Bud Light video, which features a series of people suggesting they like, had, or will get “it in the can,” got attention for the pure raunchiness of its thematic double entendre. Created by DDB, it attracted around 237,000 views during that week.

“Liquor companies are riskier, because…they sell liquor,” said Baratunde Thurston, Web and politics editor of The Onion. Essman continued, “…because they’re associated with debauchery.” The Onion has added video news parodies to its text-based newspaper article spoofs.

“The Internet is pretty amazing because there’s no [Federal Communications Commission],” said Means, noting, “On the Internet you can go bananas.”

However, some advertiser clients don’t want bananas. Despite the fact that many agencies want to use the branded videos they create to exhibit their edginess, sometimes their clients aren’t willing to take the leap. Not only are some brands more risk averse, but because more people from all walks of life watch viral videos, they can be seen by people outside the target audience. So, even though a typical 17-year-old boy finds something hilarious, some brands may want to consider the potential negative impact of a video deemed offensive by other demographic groups.

Brands are willing to spend money on made-for-Web video, in part because massive broadband adoption and a multitude of free video upload sites facilitate their dissemination. Even recently, greater popularity of social sites like Facebook and Twitter has helped spur pass-along of video content. For example, explained Thurston, in the past The Onion’s top referrers were often high traffic sites such as Google, but now they tend to be lesser-known sites or social platforms. He added, “Everything has a lot higher velocity.”

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