Who coined the word ‘viral’ to describe the spread of stupid content across the internet? I suspect it was derived from computer science, but its epidemiological roots are becoming more and more apt. A virus, obviously, spreads from carrier to carrier. An outbreak may subside only to recur again later. And, like a common cold or a case of herpes simplex, there’s every possibility that its vectors may be annoyed by it, and yet, despite themselves, spread it to those closest to them. Anyone who’s found themselves clicking a ‘share’ button under the influence of a compulsion they can neither control or understand, will identify.
Last month’s most successful viral film was called First Kiss, and, at the time of writing, it’s got 76 million views on YouTube. As the name suggests it purported to show a series of surprisingly attractive strangers being introduced and instructed to kiss moments later. As well as inspiring several spoofs (First Sniff, featuring dogs and, my personal favourite, First Handjob) the video spawned an abundance of articles. In the way of the internet these were not news exactly, but news-like content – viral success generates a feedback loop as people rush to find out what made the film so virulent in the first place. The curious are the first to go.
It turned out the author of First Kiss, which posed as a piece of video art, was actually Melissa Coker, founder and creative director of the LA-based fashion label Wren. Writing for Business Insider, Coker explained that, rather than being merely incidentally shareable, the clip had been custom-built for shareability, “the majority of people spend their days staring into screens, which is essentially the exact opposite of kissing,” she said.
Engineering content for virulence is something Wieden + Kennedy London seem to have understood better than most. The agency’s Three campaign uses joyfully cheap shots (dancing ponies, singing cats) to manufacture viral hits, showing that the network that goes big on data also understands what the internet is really used for. A recent Nike football campaign, centring on Swedish striker, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, shows the same ruthless instinct for germ warfare. It took existing internet memes – the flow diagram, the trompe l’oeil gif, the inspirational poster – and applied them to its campaign idea #DaretoZlatan.
It’s a logical response to the internet viewed as an advertising channel. There’s no single stream of content that can be interrupted in exchange for cash, no DPS, no Superbowl spot; in fact, the real estate allotted to bought media has tended to be the lowest-rent kind. Retooling things that are already widely shared, means the client doesn’t need to spend a lot on media, it just occupies it. Or to take the viral comparison to its logical conclusion, ‘Call the hazmat team, they’ve weaponised the virus, by splicing it with marketing DNA’.
When this approach works the rewards are huge. Wren reported a sales lift of 13,600%. It could be that the product-centric brief is a thing of the past, the brief you really want to crack is the medium itself.
‘Gordon Comstock’ is a creative director based in London. See @notvoodoo