Struggling to keep the viral bug under control

The viral ad, once for ‘edgy’ brands, is set for the mainstream, but while there are signs that virals are discarding their smutty origins, they are still a high-risk strategy, says Martin Croft

Suicide bombers, decapitated cats, Janet Jackson’s breasts – not all viral advertising involves such gross-out humour, bigotry, sex or suffering, but those factors certainly help to spread it.

And not just spread: it also secures prodigious amounts of press coverage, as the recent fake viral advertisement showing a suicide bomber killing himself in a Volkswagen Polo demonstrates. London-based creative duo Lee Ford and Dan Brooks say they made the film purely to show off their talents to creative directors and that it was never intended for public consumption. Unfortunately, they also put the bogus ad on their website. Presumably someone downloaded it from there and sent it on to a circle of friends. And the rest, as they say, is history.

After consulting lawyers, Volkswagen has managed to extract an official apology from Ford and Brooks. A VW spokeswoman says: “They have admitted that they created the commercial and that we had no input, and that it was libellous and infringed our trademark. We are not pursuing any damages.”

Neil Hughston, client services director at Tribal DDB, the digital agency that handles Volkswagen UK’s digital business, stresses the spoof VW viral ad was “absolutely nothing to do with us”.

But internet conspiracy theorists may choose not to believe this. After all, last year’s Ford SportKa viral ad, involving a cat decapitated by a sunroof, was made by someone within Ogilvy & Mather, although apparently without Ford’s approval.

Making ads without being paid for them, or without the authority of the brand owner, is a well-known tactic in the creative industry. For example, a viral ad called “Cruise” doing the rounds at the moment appears to be for driving school BSM but in fact was made as a speculative piece of work by production company Maverick Media. Fortunately for Maverick, BSM is impressed by the work. A BSM spokeswoman says. “It’s a good piece of work – witty and well-targeted to the youth sector, which makes up a good proportion of our target market.”

HHCL/Red Cell chairman and executive creative director Steve Henry, who was chairman of the judges at the first Viral Awards held last month, says: “For as long as I can remember creatives have been pulling stunts to get their work noticed. I want to see these ideas, I want to see how they’re pushing the boundaries. But from a client’s point of view, tone of voice is very important and you don’t want someone messing with that.”

The main users of viral ads so far have been brands targeting the young, predominantly male, traditionally heavy internet users. Virals have come from a variety of sectors including cars, beers, computer games, mobile phones and snack foods.

Some marketers have opted for this route because their ads have been banned from television. At www.peperami.co.uk, for instance, you can view ads that wouldn’t get past the UK TV advertising regulators.

However, makers of viral ads believe that as the demographics of internet use change, and more women and older people come online, there will be a move away from gratuitously offensive content. Maverick Media managing director Will Jeffery says: “There is still this idea that virals have to be offensive or salacious to spread. Our experience shows virals can be effective without being either.”

Alex West, a viral ad maker who set up the Viral Awards, says: “Viral ads have moved away from the 18- to 22-year-old market that only reacted to smut – we’re talking to financial services brands about virals for 55-year-olds, for instance. Viral advertising needs to be taken seriously.”

Certainly industry regulators are taking them more seriously. Viral ads dominated last week’s meeting of the Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP), the body that writes the rules that the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) then applies. An ASA spokesman confirms the ASA and CAP are looking at whether these rules need tightening to deal with viral ads. Currently viral marketing comes under the ASA’s remit only if an advertiser has sent an e-mail with an attachment to a list of consumers. The ASA’s remit does not cover advertising that appears on a company’s own website but which the company does not e-mail out, though it may be sent out “virally” by people unconnected with the company.

But as VW’s experience shows, a major problem with viral advertising is that you can never be certain that what you are looking at is an official piece of work, a joke, “spec” work for a creative team, or a piece of guerrilla marketing.

However, with virals making the headlines, one thing you can be sure of is that huge numbers of marketers will now be briefing their agencies to make some. Which creates another problem: as Hughston says, “With the hype around viral advertising at the moment, a lot of clients want to be doing it. But sometimes you have to tell them that their brands just aren’t right for it.”

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