It’s a new world of marketing out there. Viral marketing, or the use of existing social networks to spread information and knowledge about products just as a virus self-replicates by means of human contact, is becoming increasingly popular. You’ll find viral promotions in the form of e-books, video clips, and interactive Flash games. You’ll find such promotions on Facebook.com, YouTube.com, Digg.com, and MySpace.com. You may even find them on your cell phone, in a text message.
One of the problems with viral marketing, however, is that the lack of a central filter for advertising ideas leaves the door wide open for ads that may be considered inappropriate, or even offensive. For example, do you remember the dispute that erupted in January 2005, centering on an ad for a new Volkswagen car? The UK newspaper The Guardian reported that two young British designers had created a brief video commercial for the Volkswagen Polo. The video was spreading, like a virus, online, through the social networking sites.
In the video, a darkly-bearded man in sunglasses and fatigues drives his VW Polo to a sidewalk café, parks, and detonates a bomb inside the car. His purpose is clearly a suicide mission, to blow up the café. A flash is seen inside the car, but is contained. The ad is followed by the tag line, “Polo. Small but tough.” According to The Guardian, Volkswagen strenuously denied having condoned or encouraged the advertisement. The designers, known only as Lee and Dan, stated that they had made the video for Volkswagen as a self-promotional effort, to show what they could do. Volkswagen announced that they intended to sue the two young creative professionals for damages to the company’s reputation – if they were able to locate them.
Despite all this, the video has continued to make the rounds on Internet forums, video-sharing sites, marketing blogs, and chat rooms ever since. The lack of accountability for content in this ad, the political “incorrectness” of its subject matter, and the explosiveness of the reactions to it all stand as indications of what’s to come in alternative advertising. And yet, even though VW may not have been behind the offensive ad – it certainly did bring them a huge amount of press and publicity!
The ideology and the act of terrorism are something we struggle with. Our country is currently waging a war against terrorism, and many of our young people have died in a personal and physical confrontation with it. Traditional advertising has always aimed to sell people a better life than the one they’re living. It has offered products and services with an emphasis on making people comfortable and happy. Now, with alternative advertising, suddenly the focus is on making us uncomfortable. Ads like the one for the Polo disturb us, unsettle us, but we do notice and remember the product.
Another controversial aspect of alternative advertising is that of incorporating political discourse. The line between news and advertising is increasingly blurred, as components of current political debate are included in advertisements whose purpose is to sell a product. In such a climate, how can we not become more and more apathetic and cynical about politics?
Only a month after the Volkswagen video incident, another huge company found itself spotlighted by a controversial event that boosted its sales. Hotel-heiress-turned-reality-TV-star Paris Hilton announced that hackers had invaded her T-Mobile Sidekick. Shortly thereafter, contact information for many of her famous friends appeared on the Internet, along with a number of – shall we say – indecorous photos that Hilton had kept on her cell phone/organizer/camera combination.
As the story unfolded, it was revealed that the group of young hackers responsible for swiping Hilton’s personal information had been amusing themselves for months by harassing various T-Mobile customers, some well-known and some not. They had made use of “social engineering” – deceiving people into giving away sensitive information, or in other words, old-fashioned con artistry – to obtain phone and account numbers, seemingly without much difficulty.
You’d think that this massive attack on T-Mobile’s security would have knocked the company right out of the market. Not so: Sidekick sales went roaring up after the Hilton incident and subsequent stories about the hacker group. Could it possibly be that T-Mobile had orchestrated the whole business to make the public more aware of the Sidekick? Could it have been a fantastically complex and clever piece of alternative marketing?
Both VW and T-Mobile received a tremendous amount of press coverage after their Internet scandals. Is it true that any press at all, favorable or negative, is ultimately good for a company? Maybe what we are seeing here is final proof of the value of risk-taking, controversial marketing techniques.
Finally, let’s look at user-generated content as an advertising stratagem. An example of user-generated content on a web page is offered by Amazon.com. Most of Amazon’s content is produced by administrators. However, regular users write reviews of products that are included in Amazon’s advertising. People of all kinds, with a myriad of different viewpoints, life experiences, cultures and educational levels, may have an interest in the same product. If they are encouraged to give their opinion of the product as part of the product’s advertising, the advertising can speak to all those various groups in their own voices.
User-generated content provides fresh ideas, cheaply produced. When consumers create most of the advertising for a product free of charge, a company’s costs for advertising plummet. All the company needs to provide is the web page and the hosting; the rest is accomplished by the consumer-generated content. In comparison to the expense of the traditional TV marketing campaign, user-generated content costs virtually nothing. There are no costs for creative staff, directors, actors, writers, and air time. It’s a pretty good deal for the company.
Here’s the trade-off, though: if you out-source the creative process, you lose control of the output of that process. You may like what users say about your product, or you may not, but you can’t do much about whether or not it is disseminated. The Internet is open for everyone to use. All those free upload sites like Flickr, YouTube, MySpace, and all the rest enable everyone’s ideas to be available to the public. And if their ideas are clever and unusual – like that VW video – there is every likelihood that they will make the rounds on the Internet for a long, long time.