Advertising’s Festering Viral Infection

February 8, 2009 at 5:15 pm Leave a comment

The inability to distinguish between a pizza and a pizza delivery man will ultimately result in cannibalism. The inability to distinguish between an idea and the means for delivering it will result in something equally horrifying yet, in my experience, far less filling and nutritious.

Specifically, it will result in meeting upon meeting in which agencies and clients assure each other that what they really need to do to solve all the woes of their brands is “something viral”—a truly unfortunate piece of language.

Language is a tool, and every tool has an ideological bias. The ideological bias of the word “viral” is causing advertisers all over the world to focus on precisely the wrong things. Because they’re using the wrong word, they’re emphasizing how ideas can be transported instead of the ideas themselves.

As a result, we find ourselves hip deep in mediocre “viral” executions that creative directors and brand managers are ashamed to forward to their own mothers.

If advertisers want to lift their brands out of the doldrums, they don’t need to do something “viral” (more on that regrettable word in a moment). They need to do something great. It’s not difficult to create something that it’s easy to forward to a friend. What’s damned difficult, however, is to create something so compelling, so entertaining, so surprising that consumers who see it develop a spontaneous and unrelenting desire to share it with other people.

We really don’t need to worry about consumers figuring out how to share great ideas. They are more than capable of working that out on their own. They prove it millions of times every day.

On the other hand, what agencies and clients do need to worry about is how consumers’ ability to share ideas they love has changed the creative landscape utterly. That’s because consumers don’t want to forward something that is about your brand. They want to forward something that entertains them, delights them, makes them laugh. In an ocean of new media that is largely controlled by consumers, your marketing message is no longer the shark; it’s the suckerfish clinging to the shark’s belly.

If we truly believe the game has changed because of the new ways in which consumers consume and share media, then we need to change the players. What does this mean?
Instead of hiring a copywriter, you may be better off hiring a comedy writer; instead of hiring an art director, a set designer may be a smarter choice. With apologies to the human beings who fill those positions (well, some of them, at least), copywriters and art directors are tools with their own ideological biases. If it’s true that to a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail, we may reasonably assume that to an art director, everything looks like an ad.

But if ads aren’t what are called for in a world where consumers can choose the media they consume and share, we need different “tools” to produce what they actually do want.

Let us now turn to the word viral itself. Leaving aside for a moment the ideological bias I’ve already mentioned, if I were given the assignment of naming what is now called viral advertising, it seems unlikely that the word viral would make it through the initial creative review. In addition to calling to mind the less-than-pleasant topics of communicable diseases, suppurating wounds, and biological weapons, the word also brings to mind computer viruses, which can be multi-billion-dollar scourges to corporations and individuals alike. As a name, viral advertising is only marginally better than syphilitic advertising.

A term I prefer infinitely is exponent marketing (yes, I know your second grade teacher told you exponential marketing would be correct; like others before me in advertising, I’m not averse to turning a noun into an adjective for a good cause). It works better for three reasons:

1. Exponent marketing transforms consumers into exponents (i.e., advocates) for the brand by leveraging great creative ideas.

2. Exponent marketing can reach an exponentially higher number of people than you initially target due to the geometric progression that occurs when person after person passes along our message to multiple others.

3. Exponent marketing exponentially increases the value of the marketing budget required for its creation.

Ultimately, though, what we call the thing now known as viral advertising makes very little difference. If the work isn’t great, no one will care and no one will forward it to a friend—not even your mom. And that virus is fatal.

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