Immune to the Virus?

March 1st, 2008

Viral marketing may be the cure for advertisers’ woes 

By Kimber Doolittle

It’s Friday afternoon. You just got out of your last class of the day. Walking through the halls, incessant tablers call out to you about their club. A few minutes later, you step on a flyer that has fallen off a cluttered bulletin board. Finally, you reach your room, sit down, turn to your computer and get bombarded with pop-up ads as you search the web. Clicking out of them furiously, you wonder, who cares about these advertisements anymore?
Think about it. When was the last time you actually stopped to read the dozens of flyers around campus encouraging students to do this or that? And with the exception of the legendary Super Bowl ads, does anyone truly watch commercials anymore? Given the glorious technology of DVR and TiVO, commercials can be fast-forwarded and essentially ignored. Other video Web sites also make it increasingly easy to access almost any and all content, commercial free.
So…wonderful! We’re becoming immune to marketing (harassed citizens-1, annoying ads-0).
As such, many advertisers are facing the challenge of getting their message to the public. And their jobs depend on finding new ways to breach the vast frontier of uninterested consumers. Herein lies a problem inherent in modern marketing—utilizing the technology that has made advertisements obsolete.
One solution that has risen out of the jumble of overused gimmicks is viral marketing. Best described as the Internet version of word-of-mouth advertising, viral marketing has begun to show its advantages to advertisers desperate for help.
“It’s creative. It breaks through the clutter because there is no clutter of non-traditional ads,” says integrated marketing and communications professor Scott Hamula. “It does get noticed.”
Initially, the name “viral marketing” was coined in the ‘90s by Steven Jurvetson to describe Hotmail’s amazing success from having little messages at the bottom of each sent email, encouraging recipients to sign up for their own account. Napster, eBay, and Blue Mountain Arts, for example, also got their fame by using similar techniques.
One basic idea behind viral marketing is to present an offer of tangible value to already won-over consumers as motivation to tell others about that product. For instance, Snapfish, an online service for posting and printing pictures, often gives discounts to users if they sign a new person on.
“Think of it like a virus,” Hamula says.  “It’s something someone gets and they pass it on.”  This idea is the dynamic that drives viral marketing.
The movie “Cloverfield” (released this past month January) was a $41 million hit thanks to its innovative virtual campaign, utilizing the blogosphere, mysterious press clues and online hype. This advertising mirrors the formula that also proved profitable for “The Blair Witch Project.” The venture began with a teaser trailer that went out this past summer. In it, a shaky handheld camera runs through New York City as buildings are being torched or knocked to the ground by some unidentified roaring creature. The vague trailer motivated fans to probe the Internet, where they could scan the actual (although fictitious) Web sites of some organizations in the movie and stalk the MySpace accounts of the characters. The strategy was a success, using just the right mix of vagueness and accessibility.
Other emerging marketing methods involve pushing products and brands much further than they have gone before. In the case of the sugar substitute Sugar Free, an outline of a muffin was painted on a poster with syrup made with the product. Then a colony of ants was let onto the poster.  They went straight to the syrup, devouring it, thus creating the outline of the muffin for all to see. The promotion?
Even the ants couldn’t tell the difference between real sugar and the substitute.
Another recent marketing ploy that breaks new ground uses consumer-generated content. Essentially, sponsors create contests that allow consumers to try their own hand at promoting a product. Frito-Lay invited users to produce their own commercials for Doritos and aired the winner during this year’s Super Bowl. Pepsi had a design contest for a new can last year. Even Chevrolet also encouraged consumer-generated advertisements back in spring 2006 for the new Chevy Tahoe. These contests, which put consumers in power, definitely receive their share of attention.
“It drives people to the website, gets people involved.” Hamula says.
Although this tactic builds customer relations, there are some cons to leaving advertisements up to the public. During Chevrolet’s campaign, some designed negative ads for the Tahoe, basically mocking its environment-wrecking features. One ad jokingly claims that Chevrolet paved the prairies, deforested the hills, outstripped the mountains, and sold itself for oil—only to enable people to drive around and see what’s left of the wilderness. These videos, although obviously not the winning selections, were well made and posted on YouTube.
In a completely different approach, television network A&E perhaps takes their marketing a bit farther than it should. Its billboard in New York City for the new ghost-themed series “Paranormal” uses technology manufactured by Holosonic to transmit targeted sound waves to people who are walking by. The message can only be heard privately in a person’s ear and silences after a few feet. Someone might hear in their head as they go by, “Who’s there?  Who’s there?” followed by, “It’s not your imagination,” a few seconds later.
It definitely works. But is this simply a catchy marketing strategy or an ominous prelude to a more invasive brand of advertisement?
Marketing agencies will continue to outdo each other so long as the clients continue to expect results. But as Hamula explains, viral marketing may be at a loss when it comes to specifics.
“If you spend $10 million to sponsor the Olympics or if you spend a million dollars for some viral campaign to put stickers all over garbage cans in New York City, it’s like, what did I get for my million dollars?” he says. “There’s got to be accountability. That’s where viral and other non-traditional methods aren’t as strong as traditional methods. It’s hard to measure the effect, the return of investment, for a billboard with laser sound.”

Marketing boundaries seem to be disappearing all around. But it seems that viral strategies will only compliment traditional ones, not substitute for them. And personally speaking, thank goodness. Having one message (instead of dozens) transmitted into my brain when I walk past a billboard is creepy enough. Effective, but creepy.

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Kimber Doolittle is a sophomore journalism major. Email her at kdoolit1[at]ithaca.edu.

Whaling Wall Matthew Farrell
Chow Feng Shui Josh Elmer
Stained Glass Ceiling Emily McNeill
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Metrolollipopolis Jennifer Konerman
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