Spreading a product, selling a virus

Daily Sundial

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A man of apparent Middle Eastern descent

exits an apartment building, walks down a set of stairs and climbs into a sleek, compact black car. Seconds later, he pulls up in front of a crowded caf?. People are chatting over lunch; women are cradling babies in their arms.

Inside the car, the driver pulls out what appears to be a detonator.

Cut to an outside shot of the vehicle. There is the sound of a muffled explosion, and a fireball can be seen through the tinted window. But the car remains intact, and the patrons of the caf? hardly seem to notice that a suicide bomber has blown himself up right next to them.

The tag line, topped with the Volkswagen logo, appears on the screen: “Polo. Small but strong.”

Although Volkswagen has denied any involvement with the ad’s creation, the commercial, which appeared on the Internet in January, is an extreme example of a growing phenomenon in the world of corporate marketing: viral ads, which are irreverent and occasionally controversial advertisements not meant for traditional consumption.

The goal of viral ads is not necessarily to promote the virtues of a product, but to generate word-of-mouth buzz about the ad itself, which is built primarily through e-mail.

“It’s about inspiring people to tell other people about something,” said Rick Webb, co-founder of the Barbarian Group, which has created online campaigns for companies like Virgin Atlantic Airways, Discover Card and Subway. “It’s harnessing a habit people already have as users of the Web. People already talk to their friends online and send them interesting stuff. It’s harnessing that for a specific (reason).”

Webb said his group’s most popular viral ad campaign to date has been Burger King’s bizarre “subservient chicken” promotion.

Last year, when the fast food chain launched its new TenderCrisp Chicken Sandwich, the restaurant’s ad agency, Crispin Porter + Bogusky, collaborated with the Barbarian Group to develop an interactive website where visitors are confronted by someone in a chicken costume. The chicken-clad person is inexplicably wearing a garter belt and is standing in a modestly furnished living room that could belong to any average college-aged bachelor or bachelorette.

By typing commands into a prompt, the chicken can perform up to 300 actions, anything from jumping jacks to impersonating an elephant.

The Burger King logo appears only briefly, as the page is loading.

It may seem nonsensical on the surface, but according to Gillian Smith, senior director of media and global collaboration with Burger King, the “subservient chicken” represents a physical manifestation of the company’s slogan, “Have it your way.”

“It lets consumers know about the chicken sandwich in a funny and irreverent way,” Smith said. “It’s a different and innovative way to get the message out there. It plays off our brand proposition. By putting people in control, they can be empowered. You have power over a chicken, in an online format.”

Promotion for the website began modestly, with only a handful of people within the company aware of its existence when it appeared online the night of April 8, 2004.

Then, true to the term “viral,” word spread rapidly. The address was flashed without explanation in television spots and placed in a single print ad.

Soon, traffic on the website ballooned, and has since received about 396 million hits.

Smith said visitors spend an average of six to seven minutes experimenting with the subordinate poultry.

“Online, in particular, is one of the few areas where you can get consumers to interact with your brand,” Smith said. “Television, radio and print are all very passive mediums, but online is very interactive. To get six or seven minutes of someone’s attention changes consumers’ perceptions of who you are.”

While she could not provide any exact figures, Smith said the TenderCrisp Chicken Sandwich product launch was “very successful,” and attributed a large part of that success to the “subservient chicken” campaign.

“Burger King was smart enough to let us do what we (wanted),” Webb said. “They had some concerns, and we cleaned it up later on. They said, ‘It’s weird, but if you want to put our name on it in gray with a black background, we’ll trust you.'”

Most viral ads, including the “subservient chicken,” target a demographic that some believe is becoming increasingly difficult to reach through more conventional mediums: adults between the ages of 18 and 30, the group most likely to spend a lot of time on the Internet.

“Speaking to hundreds of students, I make the joke openly that nobody reads the newspaper anymore,” said Brian Connett, marketing professor at CSUN. “I mention something I read in the Wall Street Journal, and they look at me like I’m talking Chinese. They don’t look at hard news on television. (Instead), they watch MTV.”

“Clutter, to use marketing jargon, in the traditional media is such that it’s becoming harder and harder to reach anybody, not just the younger generation,” Connett said. “Marketers are trying to do everything they can do to actually reach these people.”

The 18-to-30 age demographic is more easily targeted through technology, according to Curt Dommeyer, CSUN marketing professor.

“They’re watching less television and doing more computer stuff,” he said.

But Webb said the idea of viral marketing is attractive to companies for reasons other than the audience it appeals to.

Namely, it’s cheap.

“If I had $10 million, I could create a mediocre broadcast campaign,” Webb said. “For that amount of money, I can make the greatest interactive campaign ever.”

With every technological advancement, there are also drawbacks, as Volkswagen recently discovered.

A British production duo claimed responsibility for the suicide bomber ad in a written apology to the company, claiming it was a self-promotional piece never intended for public release and was not authorized by Volkswagen, said Patrick Hespen, public relations associate for Volkswagen.

Still, it was difficult for the car manufacturer to finally disassociate itself from the controversy.

The pseudo-unofficial nature of viral marketing makes it difficult for a company to prove concretely they had nothing to do with inflammatory ads, especially if they look as professional as the Polo spot.

Also, with the increased availability of inexpensive equipment to design such professional-looking commercials, more companies could be subject to the wrath of tech-savvy pranksters.

Webb said there are several other faux ads for large corporations floating around the Internet.

But, he said he does not believe such hoaxes do much harm to the brand.

Besides, according to Webb, with the way the marketing industry is evolving, major companies may have no choice but to deal with such hindrances if they want to have access to consumers.

“A lot of people spend their life on the Web, and those people are going to get older; parents are going to get more into it,” Webb said. “In just a couple years, (the) interactive (medium) will be just like print and broadcast. You have to do it.”