mar 5

Why I Don't Entirely Hate Online Viral Marketing

Over the weekend, I did a segment about online viral marketing on public radio's Weekend America. Here's the audio file (mp3 - 6.3mb).

Although most of us sentient beings think of advertising as predominantly evil (or, if forgiving, necessarily evil), an interesting contradiction arises out of viral marketing -- it's both detestable and fascinating at the same time. In that sense, viral marketing introduces complex issues about how we relate to media, how we want to believe in fantasy, and how we still cling to the notion of authenticity. Sometimes it's strangely addicting (Subservient Chicken), and other times it's like watching your parents dance to Outcast (Raging Cow).

As a compendium to the radio show, below are links to some online viral marketing campaigns. (If they aren't hyper-linked, that means the site no longer exists.) It's a long list, so skim it as you see fit:

Subservient Chicken -- Burger King
Although it wasn't the first, it seemed to kick-off the trend. It also created spin-offs, including Crystal Clear's Ask Crystal Show and Subservient President.

Chicken Fight -- Burger King
Trying to follow-up the buzz behind Subservient Chicken, this was a game with a boxing bout between two chickens. It was pretty dumb.

Pimp My Burger -- Burger King
A recent take-off of MTV's Pimp My Ride. Long but mildly entertaining.

Angus Diet -- Burger King
Another BK one. A fake inspirational speaker and personal interventionalist espouses the benefits of eating beef.

The Beast -- A.I. Artificial Intelligence
The Beast is the respected grandfather of the movement. The story: Evan Chan is murdered in the fictional world of the movie A.I. Clues are available on the internet on approximately 30 interlinked websites (disguised as universities, businesses, personal homepages, etc.). Over 7,000 people combine their knowledge to figure out the murder mystery.

I Love Bees -- Halo 2
Perhaps the most ambitious example of a new medium called "alternate-reality gaming" (which includes The Beast, above). Participants go to a website to learn what pay phones will be called that week (to make it even more geeky, they're listed by GPS coordinates). When they answer the phone, a message is given with a clue. Back on the website, you enter the answer to a question and then hear a 30-second clip of new material. Sometimes when you pick up the phone, you talk to with a live person, and what you say can be incorporated into the online game. The final episode, which had a War of the Worlds feel, was timed to the launch of the videogame. Millions of people came to the site.

MSN Found -- Microsoft/MSN
MSN Found has six fake online personalities in their mid-20s (with profiles more stereotypical than MTV's The Real World) write blogs and post video clips. The blogs contain words ("hypnodragon" and "define vertigious") that are intended to drive you to use MSN Search for clues. The hook is that you're supposed to get interested in the personalities, and then use MSN's new search product to find out more about these people. Strangely, the site doesn't use Microsoft's own blogging software, Spaces.

The 2-Headed Dog -- MTV2
This came about because of MTV2's new branding strategy to compete with the upcoming music video station, Fuse. The site (now defunct) didn't contain much more than strange visuals of two-headed dogs, but it made you scratch your head if you stumbled across it before the station redesign. MTV hired people to spread the word on message boards, which caused a backlash.

The Lincoln Fry Blog -- McDonald's
A Super Bowl commercial about a couple who discovers a McDonald's french fry that looked like Abe Lincoln triggers this escapade. A fake blog chronicles the couple's adventures. After the ad ran, McDonald's decided to sell the fry online, where an online casino ( paid $75,100 for it. So it's like buying someone else's viral marketing scheme to create your own.

Axe Feather -- Axe Deodorant

Counter Counterfeit Commission -- BMW Mini
This somewhat clever campaign is a fake "detect a fake Mini" site, which contains photos on detecting a fake Mini and a $20 documentary DVD on the Mini counterfeit underworld.

Elite Designers Against Ikea -- Ikea
Another fakie. Elite designers are against Ikea because their stuff is so cheap. I mean, inexpensive.

HalloweenM3 -- Mazda
This short-lived experiment from Mazda had a fake blogger talking about the new Mazda M3. The internet community generally disliked this disingenuous attempt. (NOTE: I somehow misidentified this site's name on the radio show. I called it "Raging Cow," which is below.)

Raging Cow -- Dr. Pepper
Dr. Pepper enlisted six blogging teens to promote the product Raging Cow, a new milk-based drink. The strange thing is that the bloggers aren't paid, yet they enjoy talking about the product -- a clear precursor to the persuaders.

Find The Message -- GM Onstar
17 different words plus the URL are placed on billboards around the country. The goal is to put all the words together to figure out a message. Pieced together from L.A. to New York, it turned out to be "This is the last time you will ever have to feel alone on our nation's roadways," which advertised GM's OnStar navigation product. A prize was to be given to whoever figured it out first, but someone cracked open the site's flash file, and revealed the phrase before actual terrestrial sleuths could figure it out.

Pump Up The Movie -- Best Buy / Nokia
It too me a while to realize that this was a fake movie site which includes a "toss the cheerleader" game. (Created by

Fight Big Overcoat -- Transglobal Vacations
Another one involving billboards.

Rubber Burner & Super Greg -- Lee Jeans
These long-gone fake homepages of out-of-touch losers were modeled on Mahir, the dancing Turkish hipster from 1999. Fallon was behind the project. (Sidenote: This one was first brought out into the open by Kottke on Metafilter, which seems like a million years ago.)

Who Ordered Room Service -- Not Bryan Adams
And now there's even parody viral marketing campaigns. At first this looked like a viral campaign by Bryan Adams for his new album, Room Service. Except he had nothing to do with it.

VW Suicide Bomber -- Probably Not Volkswagen
Because viral marketing is now so prevalant, there's the danger that people will think parodies are real.


  • The Viral Awards -- There was even an awards show held a couple weeks ago in New York City.
  • Cripsin Porter + Bogusky -- This is the firm behind many of these, and is generally credited with pioneering the movement.
  • Viral Marketing Manifesto -- Created to fight the backlash and create effective campaigns.
  • The Persuaders -- Great Frontline episode on marketing.
  • Wikipedia -- "Viral marketing" defintion.
  • The Hidden (in Plain Sight) Persuaders -- NYT Mag story on BzzAgent, the company behind a kind of second-generation of viral marketing tactics.

  • Ad Rants
  • Ad Jab
  • Adland
  • Agenda Inc.
  • All Marketers Are Liars
  • Cool Hunting
  • Adweek

  • Adjab -- The prominence of viral marketing
  • Adrants -- Viral Marketing Discussed on NPR's Weekend America
  • Rexblog -- All you ever wanted to know about viral marketing
  • FM Gold -- Is It Effective...And Why Do We Have To Keep Asking?
  • Much Ado About Marketing -- Viral Marketing Discussion On MPR

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