Between Friends

Viral marketing and the commerce of ideas

| March 23, 2006

In an advertising-saturated age, consumers have their defenses up, meeting overtures from large companies with skepticism. As a cure for this consumer apathy, some companies have turned to viral marketing, which JuiceeNewsDaily defines as 'exploit[ing] pre-existing social networks to produce exponential increases in brand awareness.' A word-of-mouth mechanism, viral marketing has met with most of its successes online.

Basically a pyramid scheme that generates awareness rather than unsuspecting investors, viral marketing became ubiquitous when Hotmail appended invitations to its free service at the bottom of every email its users sent out. Jonah Peretti -- partner and technology director for The Huffington Post, among other pursuits -- argues in an interview with StayFree! that the understanding of how viral marketing works is still incubating. '[M]ore an art than a science,' success in viral marketing is the exception, not the rule, he says. Yet its early commercial successes have been eclipsed by what seems to be viral marketing's real power: as an antidote to commercial culture through irony, art, and political commentary.

One of the most successful and well-known viral marketing campaigns comes from the world of political organizing. Building on person-to-person connections, MoveOn.org's method of raising awareness and galvanizing support has become a model for many low-budget organizations.

The tactic has also become ripe ground for cultural criticism. Last year, Peretti organized the Contagious Media Showdown, an art project in which contestants created hoax websites in an attempt to be the most contagious online project. The winner was a company called Forget Me Not Panties. The hoax company claimed to sell women's' underwear that would inform the woman's husband when she was stepping out in the high-tech skivvies. Forget Me Not Panties, along with the runner up (whatisvictoriassecret.com), were art projects with strong cultural critiques. They 'sold' nothing but ideas and a perspective.



The stratagem, however, has proved difficult to master, as Coca Cola learned the hard way. Attempting to cash in on the popularity of blogs, Coke set up its Zero Movement website, complete with posts that looked like they were written by Coca Cola Zero devotees, not the company's ad agency. They were outed for their duplicity and took a hit when a mock Zero Movement website sprang up, subverting and lampooning Coke's attempt at viral marketing.

Viral marketing campaigns cost next to nothing, and the growth can be exponential, cheaply generating a market reach that makes advertisers swoon. But in a media world where, as Peretti says, 'popularity begets popularity,' it's hard to predict what will work. And as Coca Cola learned: If viral marketing ventures prove one thing, it's that success, or failure, is in the hands of the public.