A gear wheel rolls down a narrow board, tips over a second gear, which drops on a third, which pivots a muffler which, with the precision of a ballet, eventually moves a Honda Accord down a ramp under an unfurling banner. The choreography is so perfect that many people, including myself, thought that this commercial had to be a computer simulation. But from written accounts, what you saw was the real thing, done on the 606th take.
The now-famous Honda "Cog" commercial was originally shown on British television, but I first saw it after a few friends emailed a link to the streaming video version on the Web. Indeed "Cog" is still on the Web, an early example of what has come to be known as "viral marketing"?in which people, largely through email, propagate advertising. "Viral marketing" refers to all kinds of techniques, some verging on the dishonest. But as it applies to the Web, the term mostly describes commercials that are so intriguing, outrageous, sexy, or creative?that people will pass them around.
Bore Me:a large archive of viral ads
A large archive of viral advertising can be found at BoreMe.
When Brown started in 2001, most virals on the site were in the form of pictures and text. Now, Web movies are the dominant form, accounting for 40 percent of Bore Me’s listings. About half of new Bore Me content comes from 50 to 60 outside submissions each week, with frequent contributors credited by name. Brown finds the other half himself, visiting a long list of bookmarked websites. Most of the virals are put into "collections," the most popular of which are football, cats, celebrities, and visual jokes about George Bush?whom Brown calls a "godsend," inspiring some of the world’s best virals. One collection is captioned "Japan: There’s no doubt about it, the Japanese are very weird." (Readers might want to visit the site and judge for themselves.) Bore Me also archives a monthly top-10 of most highly rated virals. "You can look back and compare what was highly rated in Christmas 2002 with Christmas 2005," Brown says.
The site has a few offspring, including a separate listing for adult-oriented virals: Bore Me Rigid. Bore Me Mobile, still a work-in-progress, provides mobile phone movies. "We are making the service truly 'viral,'" says Brown. "You pay for the first download to cover the mobile operator's cost, but passing movies on to your mates via Bluetooth is completely free." Delivery is done through a partner, Opera Telecom, which edits the length and converts files to 3GP.
Not all virals on Bore Me are advertisements, but viral advertising, produced both by professionals and amateurs, is found throughout the site. The library includes what Brown believes is the first viral advertisement?for John West salmon, in which a fisherman and bear fight kung-fu style over a lakeside catch. "This was an ad that was made for TV and somehow it got out on the Internet?and they were very surprised at how well it spread."
Bore Me also hosts a viral competition, appropriately called "Germ." Categories for 2005 included best image viral, movie viral, interactive viral, and viral with an interactive theme. Most of these were created by individuals, although the first place winner, "Juiced," was done by Maverick Media, which claims to be one of the top 30 London commercial companies. Done for the racing simulation game "Juiced" the Southern California developer THQ, it shows two guys in a car using game controllers remotely undress and jiggle a woman. Of sure-fire appeal to young men, the ad has zero chance of being shown on mainstream American television?which makes it a particularly good candidate for Internet distribution.
Was the ad officially sanctioned by THQ or not? A company spokesman sounded a bit tongue-tied when I asked that question and promised that someone would get back with an answer. None did. But as Brown points out, not knowing whether a viral ad is official or not is part of the genre’s charm. One of the most famous viral commercials of all time features a terrorist driving up in Volkswagen Polo to an outdoor cafe. When he pushes a green button on the detonator, the interior of the car ignites in flames, but the car’s exterior (and the cafe) remain perfectly intact. The tagline: "Polo. Small but tough." Volkswagen decried the ad, which was produced by Lee Ford and Dan Brooks. On their website www.
These days, the very concept of viral advertising is spreading?virally. There are word-of-mouth conferences and agencies that specialize in it. Viral advertisers found on Bore Me include Playstation, Burger King, Mazda, Ford, Miller Lite, Renault, Trojan Condoms and Agent Provocateur. "We are getting a lot more ads," Brown says. But people are getting more discerning. "In the beginning, even a spinning logo would excite people. These days, you have to have something that people will actually send on. If you make a rubbish ad, it might go onto Bore Me, but it will not spread."
As a collector of virals, Bore Me has a couple of advantages. It is small and independent, without having to maintain a responsible corporate image like a Google or Disney. And it is British, not American?which is culturally less squeamish. The Brits are also the masters of understated humor, producing some of the great advertisements of all time. That sensibility informs Bore Me, as well.
Behind the scenes, Bore Me is run by a staff of five. Brown serves as editor/
New virals coming in get tagged for the database and most are sorted into a collection. "Historically the site has used both an online MySQL database and an offline FileMaker database," Brown says. "The content management and building of pages were done offline to reduce server load, with new static pages uploaded each day. The online database was used only for those elements that needed to be dynamic, like the rating of virals and the membership area, 'Your Bore Me,' as well as the search facility."
A new version of the site is nearly complete. "The new architecture is designed to keep the advantages of mainly static pages but to allow distributed content management by moving the FileMaker database to an online MySQL database. The database generates new XML files whenever the content management system is used. These XML files are then used with PHP templates to create the site and to provide XML feeds for syndication." The site is hosted by NTT Verio's London DataCentre on three load balanced IBM x336 servers running Linux. Average bandwidth use is more than 800GB per day, about 25TB per month.
All video all the time: YouTube
Viral advertising is also starting to show up on Websites devoted to user-downloadable videos. One of the newest is YouTube.
Like Flickr, Yahoo’s highly successful still image site, YouTube uses tags for quick category lookup. Visitors can rate what they see, add a comment, create a discussion thread, and link in a related video. Videos are arranged into categories, called "channels." Unlike Bore Me, the emphasis is on user-created video?but there are exceptions.
"We have some professional advertisers using the website," says Chen. "We’re in communication with Nike, for example." A search of "Nike" on YouTube results in 499 video clips. While not all are advertisements, some are clearly part of the company’s worldwide branding campaign. They show basketball players, women tennis players, and other athletes?full-time and not. One, labeled "Nike Japan," features a "transformer" shoe-to-robot on a billboard. It is credited to Design Assembly, a German creative agency that seems to specialize in online promotional games. It is not clear from the firm’s website whether Nike commissioned the ad..
The line between professional and amateur work is especially blurred with Nike ads because the real ones have an on-the-spot, documentary look. Consider the Nike-produced video of Brazilian footballer Ronaldinho putting on his shoes and working out. The video is hand-held and shot without cutting, appearing as if it were shot spur-of-the-moment. The only Nike tie-ins are the shoes, the "swoosh" poster in the background, and the a closing screen promoting Nikefootball.
As befitting a Silicon Valley company, YouTube is distinguishing itself with its technology?which is especially notable during video playback. "We support more than 130 different video codecs and around 210 different audio codecs?transcoding and uploading them into Macromedia Flash," says Chen. Taking advantage of Flash’s high install base, all YouTube videos run on pretty much all computers.
YouTube maintains a blog, which announces new features, addresses performance issues from increasing traffic, and features a picture of the staff kitchen sink. Visitors can subscribe to 13 RSS feed: including the videos that are the most viewed, discussed, recently added, and top rated. A separate button on each of these categories adds the feed to the My Yahoo link?an easy-to-use Web-based news reader.
The site also offers developers a set of API functions using both REST and XML-RPC, which give read-only access to parts of the YouTube video repository and user community. We’ve released a set of features that include things like an external embeddable video player," says Chen. "If you’re a content provider, you still have to come to YouTube to upload the videos. But after that’s done, you can take the snippet of code we give you and feature a video player on your website that is hosted by us. For more advanced developers, we also give you APIs for, say, querying on specific tags."
The end of "interruption marketing"?
So what do all these video virals mean for the advertising industry? Paul Rand of the public relations firm Ketchum spends a lot of his time "trying to get arms, ears and programs around new technologies" that are changing how companies do marketing. He says that we are seeing the end of what he calls "interruption marketing." "To say that I’m going to put my ad everywhere, and that you will inevitably end up seeing it?that’s fading very, very quickly. Instead of seeing these great big ad buys that are going into the newspapers or on television, some of it will be going online and into other places." Rand, who works out of Ketchum’s Chicago office, says that the real significance of viral marketing is what it shares with on-demand video and MP3 players: "consumers are getting what they want, when they want it, how they want it, and on their terms, not on the marketer’s." Now, it is increasingly becoming contingent upon the marketer to figure that out or they will unquestionably be left behind. I believe this wholeheartedly?I see it every day."
Rand is not necessarily predicting the death of the conventional television commercial, but it is certainly under siege. Millions of viewers are now happily skipping over advertisements using video digital recorders?including those now built into a cable settop box. "If I’m going to see your commercial on television, it’s because I have allowed myself to do so, not because you have forced it upon me. Call it ‘viral’ or ‘word-of-mouth’ or ‘customer evangelism,’ the trend is towards looking for ways that people will be intrigued enough to share it with other people that they know. There’s different ways that companies are finding to do that."
A good example, says Rand, are the eight BMW short features called "The Hire," which appeared both in theaters ahead of the feature and on the Internet. Directed by name-brand directors, they all featured a BMW in a supporting role. "They all played up the great excitement in driving and underlined the brand proposition. The link got passed along because it was a wonderfully attractive campaign."
As a counter-example, Rand cites Burger King’s "subservient chicken" online campaign (subservientchicken.
As for mock ads done by amateurs, Rand is all for it. "The majority of times, they are ads people create because they love the product. Look at some of the Apple ads ? created by evangelists with such a commitment to the product or service that they take the time to create something and share it around. If people are passionate enough to do this on their own, you’ve hit a vein of wealth."
Sidebar: Viral Politics? Selling Candidates on the Web
Viral advertising doesn’t just sell cars and video games. It also sells candidates and had a pronounced effect on the last U.
Borick notes that in the United Stated, the Federal Election Commission has tight requirements on broadcast political advertising. Among other things, the candidate must introduce himself at the end of the commercial and say that he or she approved it. "Things are far more lax on the Internet.
And the results are not always pretty. "Last year, a lot of the ads were very aggressive. The Republican National Committee ran one ad that interspersed screaming Democrats with Hitler. You wouldn’t do this on TV, but you can get away with sending it to a select audience. The RNC claimed they had 6 million email addresses." Advertising going the other way came most notably from MoveOn.
The "swiftboat" ads that cast doubt on Kerry’s military career also started virally?and may have proved fatal to the Democrat’s campaign. "The ads got picked up by the national media, which in turn drove more visitors to the website, where the ad was linked. During the peak period in August, that website got about a million hits, which is as much as the entire Kerry online campaign got during that time."
Borick has no doubt that the use of viral political ads will only expand, with more attention paid to connecting television and Internet advertising into a single campaign. Are we a better democracy for it? "That’s the million dollar question. I’m not a big proponent. The ads on both mass media and the Internet don’t do a lot for public discourse. They are usually short, have incomplete information, and are more about emotion than reason."
Borick notes that the Internet is also a good resource for voters, as well. He particularly likes the University of Pennsylvania’s FactCheck.