Viral e-mails tool of the future

Viral videos are a marketer’s dream – they’re cheap, reach the consumer quickly and can be denied if they backfire.

An e-mail has been doing the rounds, exhorting recipients to “take some intelligent, united action” in order to stop runaway petrol prices. Instead of the usual “don’t buy petrol on a certain day” campaigns, this particular viral e-mail suggests a sustained boycott of oil titans BP and Esso. If the two biggest companies see demand plummeting, they will lower prices accordingly. This in turn will force all the other oil companies to follow suit.

And to give consumers an extra motivation to act, the e-mail includes a quick calculation to show that if each recipient forwarded it to just ten people, the boycott message could be in the hands of more than 300 million petrol consumers within eight days.

I have no idea how many people have so far received the e-mail, or whether Esso and BP are quaking in their boots. But what is clear is that viral e-mails are continuing to gain ground as a powerful form of expression and action in the 21st century.

There are three basic types of viral e-mail: one that is a nasty, computer-contaminating virus and that none of us wants to receive; one that is a genuinely non- commercial or anti-commercial message (see above); and one that is ultimately commercial in intent, either disguised or blatant (such as Virgin’s competitions to win a holiday on Necker Island).

For marketers, it is the disguised commercial viral e-mail that has really fired their imaginations. The number of cute, quirky, bizarre or shocking e-mails that turn out to have commercial origins has ballooned over the past four years.

Big-name brands such as Ford, Jaguar, Mazda, Nokia, Tesco and Virgin Mobile have jumped on the bandwagon, and anecdotal evidence suggests that we are about to see a surge in new viral “campaigns” – particularly ones involving video clips, which are infinitely cheaper than traditional television ads.

But it seems marketers are playing fast and loose with this new format, which is still the Wild West of online marketing.

Nokia, for instance, came under fire for a viral e-mail that showed a cat caught in a ceiling fan and then flung against a wall. The video clip reveals that this “amusing” scene was recorded for posterity on a new Nokia video phone.

When questioned about the controversial “ad”, a Nokia spokesman claims the viral video was unauthorised, even though it was created by a Nokia ad agency. Nokia says it has been reassured by the agency that the video uses trick photography. The spokesman adds: “They have also assured us that they will take all necessary action to ensure that circulation of the video material is stopped and that all further production and material created for Nokia will adhere strictly to Nokia’s ethical standards and advertising policies.”

A case of slamming the stable door after the cat has bolted? In an even more shocking example of feline abuse (or rather “trick photography”), Ford’s creatives released a viral video for the new Sport Ka that was guaranteed to cause offence.

A cat is seen jumping onto the roof of a parked Ka, no driver in sight. The sun roof opens, and the cat sticks its head into the hole. Showing its “evil twin” character, the Ka quickly closes the sun roof, decapitating the cat and thus making it pay dearly for its curiosity.

Of course, it is not just cat lovers that will be shocked by such an image. The press soon got hold of the Ka story and Ford was forced to distance itself from the video. Ford’s agency, Ogilvy & Mather, insisted the video, while created there, was never intentionally released. Some are cynical about the official denial, suggesting it was actually a carefully planned, hugely successful campaign. The ad was certainly efficient in raising the profile of the Sport Ka as a car with attitude.

Marc Caudron, director of viral e-mail specialist agency Pod1, notes that big clients are increasingly willing to take risks with viral videos. “Major brands can make huge gains through viral videos, but without a decisive edge they go nowhere,” he says. “There are huge incentives to take measured risks and the deniability makes it that much easier to stomach.”

According to viral e-mail expert John Leaver, marketing agencies love the idea that the viral medium will drive clients to lose their inhibitions and commission more creative, edgy material. But experienced agencies also know these ads have to hit exactly the right note in order to be successful and are turning down unrealistic projects.

This new, more measured approach is echoed by others in the industry. “Viral campaigns can work extremely well if they have a high enough impact, but in reality, most don’t,” says Jeremy Sice of SAS Design, whose clients include Ericsson, Foxtons and MFI. “They need to be shocking, sexy or funny in a very real, believable way. Some of the more conservative blue-chip brands just don’t lend themselves to that kind of material.”

BP and Esso take note – just in case you were thinking of hitting back.

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