August 13, 2008, 9:41 AM — Sure, it looks easy enough. Post a video of yourself wiggling your butt on Wii Fit, dancing your way across the globe, or practicing your Jedi Knight moves, and--presto! You're the next Web sensation, swept along by the viral nature of the Internet.
But corporations, politicians, and others who have attempted to manipulate the Net to their own ends have discovered that it isn't as easy as it appears. True viralness can't be manufactured, no matter how many phony blogs and tasteless videos you generate.
Whether you're selling Chevys, shilling for Cheetos, or simply trying to rise above the noise, certain rules apply: Don't fake it. Don't pretend to be cool when you're not. And never underestimate the intelligence of the crowd or its sheer delight in exposing you as a fraud.
The following ten campaigns didn't follow these rules, earning them a permanent spot in the Marketing Hall of Lame.
10. Mike Gravel: 'Rock'
Mike who? A 78-year-old former senator from Alaska running for president on the Cranky Old Guy platform was a long shot at best. Gravel hoped to overcome the odds using viral video, of which the most notable is titled simply "Rock." The video shows Gravel standing in front of a pond; he glares at the camera for 71 seconds, walks over to a rock the size of a soccer ball, heaves it into the water, and then walks slowly off into the distance as ripples spread across the water. Is he angry at the camera, the rock, or the fact that only 47 people voted for him? We'll never know. Needless to say, the words "President Mike Gravel" won't be escaping anyone's lips any time soon.
Lame: Hoping that YouTube would make people vote for you despite your not having held public office since 1981.
Lamer: Gravel's Shatneresque rendition of "Helter Skelter." Look out! He's coming down fast. Yes, he is.
9. Chevy Tahoe: Roll Your Own Commercial
When General Motors teamed up with NBC's The Apprentice to promote the Chevy Tahoe SUV in March 2006, somebody had a brilliant idea. Why not let viewers build their own commercials on the Web? Promotional spots on the show directed viewers to ChevyApprentice.com, where viewers could build ads using GM-supplied video and music and adding their own creative text. (That URL now just redirects you to the Tahoe site.)
But instead of loving paeans to urban assault vehicles, hundreds of videos appeared portraying the Tahoe as a gas guzzling, safety-challenged ego enhancement for environmentally irresponsible dorks with diminutive sexual organs. After a couple weeks of abuse, GM scrubbed the videos from its site, but many live on at YouTube. We don't know who came up with this brilliant idea, but we can guess what happened next. To quote Apprentice-master Donald Trump: "You're fired!"
Lame: Allowing people to create their own marketing messages, and then being surprised when they do.
Lamer: Donald Trump's hair.
8. Cheetos Orange Underground
Frito-Lay decided that its spokesfeline Chester Cheetah was getting stale. So last January it hired ad firm Goodby Silverstein to create a viral campaign to appeal to its core juvenile constituency--and let the chips fall where they may.
The Orange Underground site features a deliberately scratchy video urging viewers to commit Random Acts of Cheetos (RAoC). "Coat your fingers with Cheetos and leave your mark. On someone's back. Someone's desk. Wherever you like." It encouraged visitors to fill people's shoes with Cheetos, crush them inside someone's laptop, or toss them into the dryer with someone else's laundry--and then post videos of their dirty deeds online.
Fortunately for the world's laundry, almost no one noticed. Online-brand consultant John Eick, purveyor of the So Good food blog, counted a grand total of 17 blogs talking about the campaign a month after it launched. He wrote:
"The creators probably assumed a campaign with this level of creativity would go viral right away. Clearly it didn't.... Did they really expect people to start pulling crazy pranks with Cheetos? Who in their right mind is actually going to go out and buy 20 bags of Cheetos to pull pranks with?"
The verdict? Dangerously cheesy.
Lame: Encouraging juvenile pranks employing fake foodstuffs.
Lamer: The video of a teenager wandering through a supermarket with Cheetos stuck up his nose. That's one RAoC we didn't need to see.
7. Coors Code Blue
Coors's online adventures started with a beer commercial built around its new temperature-activated bottles. When the mountains on the Coors label changed color, excited Coors fans in the ad send "Code Blue" text messages to each other, indicating it's time for a cold one. The idea looked so cool on the commercials that Coors wanted people to do it in real life, until the company discovered that "text-messaging elaborate 'Code blue' alerts as shown in the commercial using mobile devices would not currently be technologically feasible" (according to the New York Times).
Instead, Coors poured money into the Web, creating Facebook and MySpace pages that allowed Coors fans to send "Code Blue" alerts to their pals. Apparently, Coors has never heard of Twitter.
Cold? Maybe. Cool? Not a chance.
Lame: Naming the campaign after the term used for hospital patients going into cardiac arrest. Maybe Coors should have included a free defibrillator with every six-pack.
Lamer: Thinking that changing the colors on the label makes the beer taste better.
6. Sony 'All I Want for Xmas Is a PSP'
All Sony wanted for Christmas in 2006 was to create a little buzz for its handheld gaming platform. So its marketing company created a fake blog called "All I Want for Xmas Is a PSP," allegedly written by a teen named Charlie who's trying to get the parents of his pal Jeremy to pony up for a PSP. Bloggers who smelled a rat looked up the site's domain and found that it was registered to guerrilla marketing company Zipatoni (now called Rivet). The reaction was swift and brutal, and the site disappeared shortly thereafter.
How bad was the blog? To wit: "we started clowning with sum not-so-subtle hints to j's parents that a psp would be the perfect gift. we created this site to spread the luv to those like j who want a psp!"
It gets worse. Along with badly executed teen patois came a video of Charlie's cousin Pete rapping about why he too wants a PSP (when what he really needs is a job and maybe some hair plugs): "Games so crazy / they totally amaze me / gotta ask my mom for one / fo' shizzy."
Yet more evidence why any white person not named Eminem should not rap. Not now, not ever. Fo' shizzy.
Lame: Registering a fake blog under the name of a real marketing company.
Lamer: Allowing "Cousin Pete" to come within 50 yards of a video camera.
5. eBay 'Windorphins'
No, they're not anti-depressants. eBay's marketing geniuses dreamed up some blobby little cartoon characters to promote the site and the "endorphin" rush you get when you "win" an eBay auction ("win-dorphin," get it?).
Per the original press release of July 2007:
"We've all experienced that feeling you can only get on eBay--you know, the excited rush you get when you win that item you really wanted at a great price? ... Well, we've had a scientific breakthrough! According to our official scientists--after a lot of arduous, painstaking research--it can be linked to a phenomenon called 'Windorphins.'"
eBay set up a Web site where you could create your own Windorphins, and spent millions on billboards, magazine ads, and TV spots promoting them. One billboard ad proclaimed, "Windorphins are like a ticker tape parade for your soul." A more accurate description came from the blogger who called them "happy, animated hemorrhoids." eBay quietly dropped the campaign a few months later in favor of one titled "Shop Victoriously." Ugh. As for the Windorphins: Now they're just plain orphans.
Lame: Hitting the perfect balance between confusing your audience and nauseating them.
4. Wal-Marting Across America
They were Jim and Laura, two average Americans who hit the road in their RV (dubbed "Wally 1"), parking overnight at Wal-Marts around the country and blogging about the fine folks they met along the way. Sounds downright homey, don't it?
But the relentlessly upbeat entries about how everyone just loved working for Wal-Mart set off alarms in the blogosphere, and before long the blog was exposed as a fake. Though Jim and Laura were real, the trip was paid for by Wal-Mart and engineered by its PR firm, Edelman. Once people connected the dots, the blogosphere erupted, splattering both Wal-Mart and Edelman with mud and spawning yet another Web 2.0 neologism--the "flog," or fake blog.
Edelman, which helped write the ethics guidelines for the Word of Mouth Marketing Association but apparently forgot to read them, later admitted to creating two more flogs for Wal-Mart.
Lame: Treating the blogosphere the same way Wal-Mart treats mom-and-pop shops.
Lamer: Spending your vacation in a Wal-Mart parking lot.
3. Jawbone Films
Foul-mouthed racists, homicidal laundry employees, a shark-infested swimming pool, mauled teenagers, and Russian mobsters drowned in their own borscht. The latest Tarantino/Rodriguez gorefest? No, it's a collection of viral videos created to promote Aliph's Jawbone Bluetooth headsets. The idea: Despite what's going on around you (murder, mayhem, sloppy kissing between male rugby players), you can drown it all out using the Jawbone's new "NoiseAssassin" technology. Nice.
In the worst of the four videos, a racist jerk enters a Chinese laundry, insults everyone, and gets smothered with a dry-cleaning bag and beaten to death by the employees--while an oblivious bystander enjoys a crystal-clear cell call.
"I don't have virgin ears and I've dropped an f-bomb or two in my life," notes Patrick Byers, CEO of Outsource Marketing and purveyor of The Responsible Marketing Blog. "But this video is incredibly insensitive, offensive and violent. The Jawbone brand is creating buzz all on its own. They didn't need to resort to exploitative or offensive virals."
Lame: Calling your new technology "NoiseAssassin." Are all your customers 14 years old?
Lamer: Marketing something that makes you look like Lt. Uhura from Star Trek, only less hot.
2. Aqua Teen Hunger Force and 'The Bomb'
How do you promote a cartoon starring anthropomorphic versions of fast food? The creators behind the Adult Swim show Aqua Teen Hunger Force thought it would be a neat idea to attach hundreds of small billboards styled like Lite-Brite glowing toys to buildings, bridges, and underpasses in cities across the country. But when the Boston police mistook the battery-operated signs for terrorist bombs in January 2007, all hell broke loose. The city shut down highways and parts of the Charles River for several hours. The masterminds behind the signs, Peter Berdovsky and Sean Stevens, were arrested, and Turner Broadcasting System had to pay US$2 million to clean up the mess. (Berdovsky and Stevens were eventually sentenced to community service.)
But this viral-marketing disaster may have actually helped the show's image, says Barak Kassar, group creative director of full-service marketing firm Rassak Experience.
"Adult Swim's young male audience relish anti-establishment cartoons and likely relished the news footage (which they probably watched on YouTube) of the 'busted' yet unrepentant gonzo marketers who were contracted by the network," says Kassar.
Of the dozen major cities where the signs were placed, only Beantown mistook a marketing gimmick for a terrorist plot. But after all, said Massachusetts attorney general Martha Coakley, "It had a very sinister appearance. It had a battery behind it, and wires."
Lame: Boston authorities, who insisted on prosecuting the ATHF team for planting "hoax devices" long after their real purpose was revealed.
And the winner is:
1. Microsoft Vista's 'Wow'
It was a marriage made in marketing hell: a lame product with an even worse catchphrase. Yet "The Wow starts now" was only the beginning of Microsoft's desperate effort to drum up enthusiasm for Vista, its years-late-and-many-dollars-short operating system.
The campaign hit rock bottom with the Web site that Microsoft created for Vista fans to display their "Wow" moments. By having users upload photos and video clips to ShowUsYourWow.com, Microsoft hoped to show off Vista's nifty Aero interface. Unfortunately, Aero was too processor-intensive to run on many machines, leading to a class action lawsuit over the "Vista Capable" stickers used to promote the OS on underpowered systems.
"In 1994 we represented CompuServe, which had a product called 'Wow' with a slogan 'Bring the Wow into your life,'" notes Richard Laermer, principal of RLM PR and author of 2011: Trendspotting for the Next Decade. "Twelve years later, Microsoft's doing it. Using 'Wow' is like sleeping on the job. Whoever came up with that campaign for Microsoft should be shot."
Our favorite ShowUs moment: a video of Claudio, a bone-thin topless transvestite in a blonde wig, shaking his booty and lip-syncing to Shakira's "Hips Don't Lie." Wow.
Lame: Building a marketing campaign around a catchphrase that was tired back in 1994.
Lamer: Windows Vista itself.
(Contributing editor Dan Tynan writes the Gadget Freak column for PC World and the Tynan on Technology blog.)