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What makes a viral ad?

  • Story Highlights
  • Raging debate on whether clip is real or computer-edited drives viewers to watch
  • Do a video contest, because everyone else is
  • Virals can be more believable than the regular 30-second ads
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From Colvyn Harris, CEO of JWT India, for CNN
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(CNN) -- How do you create something that people want to spend more time with, and also want their groups of friends or social community to spend more time with?


In this award-winning viral, a John West "spars" with a grizzly bear over a fish.

The answer lies in the idea that it's "oh so viralicious," it's got to be shared -- with your friends and colleagues at the very first instance, at that second. And what will drive that is the power of that idea -- its creativity, its point of view, or sheer genius in expression.

Take an idea that infects you with a compulsion to hit the forward button a second after you experience it. Start a viral chain reaction from one outbox to another.

Virals are the measurable equivalent of the old-fashioned word-of-mouth, but the virus can't be controlled. Most often, if it's any good, it will exceed expectations on the Web.

It's primary to think beyond the adaptation of a 60-second spot, because the online audience can smell an ad from a mile away. Obviously, it's got to be irreverent, weird, funny and different. But more importantly, the Web has the ability to make the viral event a dialogue and, in some cases, create a community around the very "viralicious" idea.

At the cutting edge of building brands and selling products is the viral campaign. The short video clip, game, widget or ad is so compelling that much of an advertiser's work is done when their prospective customers forward it to their contacts and friends across various social networks, quickly building up an audience of millions at costs that will surprise every marketing budget planner. It could potentially drive the revenue out of traditional media as we know it.

The various "hows" to inject that vital viral infection are listed here with a few examples:

Viralicious #1: The Controversial Edge

Forward: Hey guys check this out. Someone's had the guts to spray graffiti on the president's plane.

Controversy is the mother of advertising. The edgiest ideas of them all can lead to massive attention and in fact become hot topics of debate on national television. Watch what happened to Mark Ecko with Droga 5. Having started several enterprises around the hip/hop, skater and style scene, Ecko decided to create an ideological statement on the First Amendment. He filmed a session of himself "tagging" Air Force One and used the following hype to explain why.

Did he really spray graffiti on the president's plane? The Still Free campaign has generated several million blogs, questions and video views worldwide. The U.S. authorities and investigation agencies felt compelled to investigate whether it was "real." The controversial video was awarded the Grand Prix award in the Viral Marketing category at the Cannes Festival.

Viralicious #2: Shock [I don't believe this] Value

Forward: Hey, I don't believe Ronaldinho did this for real, but it looks real mate.

The Nike Ronaldinho Touch of Gold "Crossbar" video: This clip is one of the most-watched virals ever, with more than 50 million views globally. Featuring world-famous soccer star Ronaldinho hitting the crossbar no less than four times, without the ball touching the floor. The product on display is the Nike R10 football boot. A massive discussion and raging debate on whether the clip was actually real or computer-edited drove millions of interested viewers to the campaign online and was the most forwarded video that year.

Viralicious #3: Ignite the Community

Forward: Hey, I've voted for my leader in the Lead India online/SMS poll . Have you voted yet?

This idea aimed to ignite every young mind in the world's largest democracy to actually elect a leader based on his abilities and leadership skills, rather than vote for someone who's already a politician. Probably the first viral campaign with a serious purpose, this campaign shook the nation with a million blogsites; millions of views and downloads of the campaign videos; millions of online participants; and spread like wildfire across all media in a nation of a billion people.

This idea created several hundred communities that are still debating the novelty of this cause on Orkut and several other social networking sites. The audience embraced the idea and made it viral by continuing the conversation, and posting and reposting the various episodes of Lead India and the videos online across video sites and blogspots. This is one big idea that created its own popular culture.

Viralicious #4: D.I.Y Online Contests

Forward: Hey, I watched this video and ripped a phonebook with my bare hands. Can you beat that?

There have been plenty of online video contests, but the R.I.P Yellow Pages Challenge is already the most responded contest of all time on YouTube with over 3,000 user-generated video responses, each one trying to out-rip the other with thicker phonebooks and faster rips. In fact, there's Ed Shelton, the Guinness world-record holder for the most number of phone book rips in two minutes; ripping his own world record. Other contests that are a rage in the viral arena are the Mentos Geyser Contest and the BarterBee's Contest.

Do a video contest, because everyone else is. This online-video "contest bug" will continue, and it will become more difficult to activate consumers to promote your product. In the case of, the contest idea of ripping yellow pages as a show of strength online has created a community of rippers across various networks who work underground to rip and recycle yellow pages, and therefore promote the paperless online yellow pages.

Viralicious #4: Laugh Out Loud

Forward: Hey I couldn't stop laffing after this, truly LOL, enjoy :)

Every once in a while, we see an ad that actually becomes LOL content for the same or a completely different audience. In this case, a John West employee fights a grizzly bear off to land a fish -- just to go that extra mile for quality. Obviously, it is set up, with costumes that look surprisingly real, until the bear starts throwing kung fu tricks at the "fisherman." An unusual viral, it created more than 300 million views and has won 10 awards, including "Best Commercial of the Year" from British Television Advertising Awards and a Gold Lion at the Cannes Lions Festival.

Viralicious #5: Topless celebrities/wardrobe malfunctions/accidental nudity

Forward: Hey, have you seen Kylie ride a bucking bronco in her underwear? Really sexy.

Kylie Minogue rides a velvet bucking bronco wearing nothing but lingerie from Agent Provocateur. This video was originally meant for a cinema audience, but, after being judged too explicit, it went viral and started spreading aggressively throughout the Internet. The video is completely in harmony with the Agent Provocateur corporate vision to provoke and create controversy, which it most definitely did, with more than 360 million views -- and still counting -- more than five years after its release.

Marketers have embraced this emerging media and are increasingly weaving viral components into their marketing plans. Guess what's really working for the "very viralicious" idea is the fact that it can be more believable than the regular 30-second ads. And always at the center is an idea, an expression, that captures one's imagination.

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