Viral Marketing is aimed at a public jaded by traditional advertising - where will it end?
By George Pendle
When is an ad not an ad? When it has no product to sell. A man leaves his house, gets into his Volkswagen Polo and drives to a busy café. Having parked the car, he opens his jacket to reveal a bomb strapped to his chest. His intentions are clear. However, when he detonates himself, the blast is absorbed within the body of the car. The suicide bomber dies as unscathed pedestrians walk calmly by. The Volkswagen logo appears on the screen along with the slogan: Small but Tough.
With its play on contemporary fears this 20-second film appeared to be one of the more successful examples of the recent craze for ‘viral marketing’: advertisements too risqué for traditional media and spread by word of mouth and forwarded e-mails. However within a week of its appearance, and with complaints pouring in to the car manufacturer’s head offices, Volkswagen admitted that it had not created the advert. The film had been constructed by a little-known advertising firm hoping to drum up interest in their skills. In this they had succeeded, but more importantly they had seriously upped the ante in the quasi-subversiveness that permeates much of viral marketing.
Inexpensive to produce and able to provide its viewers with an ultimately false sense of exclusionary cool, viral marketing is aimed at a public jaded by traditional advertising techniques. Designed to transform the passive observer into an active participant, it does not give you the hard sell; instead it sidles up to you and acts like a new and interesting friend. As our interest is piqued by these skewed and often mystifying ads, we find ourselves being enticed into participation. If the Internet can be described as a giant human consciousness, then viral marketing is the illusion of free will.
Take subservientchicken.com. It offers a webcam’s view of a man in a chicken costume and suspenders standing in a nondescript living-room. When you type a command onto the page, such as ‘make a sandwich’ or ‘pray’, the chicken-man obediently follows your commands. It spoofs the Internet’s penchant for voyeuristic pornography sites, and makes the viewer feel part of a strangely absurdist and clandestine club, despite the fact that the website has gained over 400 million hits since its launch last year. The strange thing is that, although commissioned by Burger King, the company’s presence barely registers.
Indeed if one looks at the more convoluted types of viral marketing, such as Sharp’s Dagobert Steinitz campaign, an interactive-fiction multimedia romp, the product seems to recede ever further into the backdrop. The Steinitz mystery concerns the myth surrounding a shaman-esque anthropologist who hid three urns around the world and left a set of cryptic clues as to their where-abouts. The campaign stretches across three oblique television commercials, seven websites and innumerable chat rooms, each of which imparts snippets of the convoluted narrative. While the product, ‘a television’, appears on some of the websites, it seems so at odds with the rest of the Byzantine story that any mention of it can be quickly skimmed over. Indeed, so involving is the storyline that it is almost as if the ad has shaken off its product and escaped to live an independent life of its own.
As the volume of viral marketing has increased, so have our expectations. The bizarreness that used to be encountered quite freely on the Internet is now under suspicion. Could that monkey urinating into its own mouth be shilling for Listerine? Is that woman masturbating a donkey on the books for Oil of Olay? With such grave misgivings in the consumer’s mind the ad companies have been forced to fly lower and lower under the radar to succeed. This has, in turn, led to the worry of ‘ad creep’.
More and more forms of media – from mobile phones to video games – are becoming embedded with advertisements. As a result, there is a genuine anxiety that society will soon have no advertising because advertising itself will become perfectly absorbed into everyday life. Advertising, we are warned, will come to mimic the very ideas we use to define ourselves. Indeed we won’t even think of it as advertising; we’ll think of it as pure experience.
However, the fake Volkswagen ad suggests another, more benign, possibility. If the increasing dislocation between advertising and product continues, what if the product were itself to disappear? At the very least it could become one of many cultural signifiers in an otherwise independent work of art.
Even those ads that are, for the moment, umbilically linked to their product stand a chance of transcending their origins. In years to come, when Burger King and Sharp trade no more, the subservient chicken may well be taken for a genuine fetish of the early 21st century. The long, fake biography of Dagobert Steinitz, once set free from his advertising shackles, could well intrude on an encyclopaedia of anthropology. As time wipes clean the slate of intention, even less successful viral ads may be granted immortality; for, once they are stripped of their consumerist connotations, they can linger on like obscure totems, whose reason for existence has become quite unknown.