8 Aug

To wrap up my Capstone Project, I’d like to begin by explaining why I pursued a Master’s degree in Emerging Media and Communication. My background is in marketing and advertising. Upon receiving my BBA in Marketing and interning at two advertising agencies, it became evident to me that in order to gain a competitive advantage in today’s rapidly evolving and technology-driven marketing and advertising industry, it was necessary for me to become more media-savvy and  up-to-date with current technologies. I approached this degree program with an advertising focus; my goal was to apply all of the principles and new technologies I learned to my career as an advertising and marketing professional.

One of the many things I discovered through my coursework is that one of the biggest factors in the dynamic nature of the advertising industry is a large and highly significant part of today’s workforce: Generation Y. Generation Y, also known as Millennials, are young adults born since the early 1980s. The group currently makes up about 76 million members, and is the fastest growing segment of the workforce. These young professionals prefer quick and efficient communication (via the Internet and mobile devices) over face-to-face conversations or standard mail, are distrustful of the media and unafraid to question authority, tend to keep a closer sphere of influence due to an increasingly dangerous world, are multi-taskers, and most importantly, are extremely tech-savvy. Millennials grew up with “new” technology, and rely on it to perform their jobs and live their lives better. They are plugged in 24/7.

Millenials’ reluctance to be influenced by traditional advertising methods have prompted advertisers to focus their attention on new technologies- thus the emergence of viral marketing. While some companies have grasped the concept of viral marketing and utilize if effectively, others struggle to create successful, engaging campaigns. Frequently, a company’s attempt at viral marketing will backfire on them, resulting in negative publicity. The goal of this project was to explore different perspectives on viral marketing, perform case studies on companies that have mastered the concept (as well as the ones who have failed miserably), and identify the factors that have led to success/failure.  Through my research, I feel that I have accumulated a sense of which qualities will lead to a successful viral marketing campaign, as well as become conscious of red flags that signal a public relations train-wreck.

The first challenge of my project was to define “viral marketing”. Throughout my readings, I explored a variety of perspectives and definitions. I came across three arguments that struck me as the most interesting or compelling:

1. In If It Doesn’t Spread It’s Dead, Henry Jenkins begins his discussion of viral media by stating that the term itself is a flawed way of thinking about distributing content through informal networks of consumers. He says we use the term “viral media” to describe word-of-mouth, video mash-ups, etc… What actually makes these methods “viral” is unclear. “Viral” isn’t the proper term for this type of media, because it implies that the idea is replicated rather than repurposed or distorted as it spreads. A more appropriate term would be “spreadable media”, because it would allow us to avoid the metaphor of “infection”. Consumers play more of an active role in spreading these ideas rather than being passive carriers.

2. Dan Ackerman Greenberg takes on a much more pessimistic viewpoint in The Secret Strategy Behind Many “Viral” Videos. He claims that there is no such thing as true “viral” videos, because they are merely the work of creative agencies such as the one he works for. Videos do not spread naturally, and compelling content is not necessary for a video to get several hundreds of thousands of views.

3. Douglass Rushkoff would disagree with both of these viewpoints. In Media Virus!, Rushkoff insists that media are not “like” viruses- they ARE viruses. He believes the term “media virus” should not be used only as a metaphor, but rather taken literally because it truly spreads like a virus. Media viruses spread through our society the way biological ones spread through the body or a community. Once attached to its host (the public), the media virus injects its hidden agenda into the media stream in the form of a meme. Like real genetic material, these memes infiltrate the way we perceive reality.

My research this summer has led me to form my own definition of what exactly “viral media” is. In regards to marketing and advertising, viral media:

  • Is content or a concept created by and rapidly disseminated via modern technology
  • Is deemed “cool enough” for people to want to share with their friends
  • Generates positive publicity as an ultimate outcome

Another key point I drew from my research, also from Rushkoff’s Media Virus!, is the distinction between a media virus and propaganda. Rushkoff suggests that propaganda is bad for society, because it oversimplifies and distracts us from the real issues at hand, and media viruses are good because they combat what can be viewed as dangerous to our culture. “The easy way to tell the difference between a media virus and old fashioned public relations ploy is to determine whether it makes an issue simple and emotional, or dauntingly complex,” says Rushkoff. In analyzing specific case studies, it was easy to distinguish propaganda from compelling viral content. Appropriately, the campaigns that appeared to be propaganda were the ones which ultimately failed.

Upon analyzing unsuccessful attempts at viral marketing, it was interesting to me how both of the companies that failed (GM and Wal-Mart) employed similar strategies. The first factor, and arguably the most detrimental, is that neither company seemed sensitive towards, or even cognizant of social issues at the time.

In 2006, former Vice President Al Gore starred in the global warming documentary An Inconvenient Truth. The documentary was a box office hit, and global warming became a hot topic in politics and pop culture. Many Americans were influenced by the documentary, and global warming became a key concern of protest groups. 2006 is also the year that GM ran its Chevy Apprentice ad, asking the audience to create commercials advertising the Chevy Tahoe.  Not the best timing to ask America what they think about a highly fuel inefficient sports utility vehicle, if you ask me…

Also in 2006, the number of troops killed in the Iraq War had reached 2,500. It had become evident that there were in fact no WMDs in Iraq, despite the Presidential administration’s claim that they had been spotted. A significant number of Americans were becoming frustrated with the deception and lack of transparency in the U.S. Government. Also in 2006, Working Families for Wal-Mart, an organization created by Wal-Mart’s public relations firm, paid a couple to drive around the U.S. in an RV (paid for by the organization) to blog about how ecstatic Wal-Mart employees were to be working at Wal-Mart.

Are you seeing a trend here?

In addition to being insensitive to social issues at the time, both of these campaigns ultimately attempted “push” strategies in their advertising attempts. Although GM asked their audience to create their own content, advertisements are positive by nature; they were assuming the audience would say great things about their brand. Wal-Mart wanted their audience to believe that their company is a great place to work, so they forced the marketing message.

In UnMarketing, Scott Stratten claims that traditional marketing and “push” strategies are no longer effective and that they can ultimately alienate the consumer. He emphasizes building relationships as an alternative to coercive marketing strategies.

A trend can also be identified among the campaigns that were successful at viral marketing. All three campaigns (Whole Foods, Old Spice, and Burger King) appear to be moreso “media virus” and less propaganda. In fact, in all three cases, the company separated its marketing message from promoting its brand. None of the campaigns described the brand’s features or positive attributes (except for the Old Spice Guy, which was meant to be satirical). In fact, it is questionable whether or not Whole Foods even played a role in the Whole Foods Parking Lot video. All three successful campaigns attempt to build a relationship with their customer by making them laugh rather than blatantly attempting to sell the brand.

Each of the successful campaigns avoid creating content that could conflict with sensitive social issues. The Whole Foods Parking Lot video mentions pop culture phenomena such as The Master Cleanse and Kombucha, but is careful not to offend or alienate anyone with subjects that could potentially be offensive.

Finally, and quite simply, all three campaigns are funny. People like to laugh, and they like to make their friends laugh. The key to making people want to share your content is the same as the key to making friends. Funny people have the most friends.

I wonder what the “next big thing” in marketing will be. As new generations come about, current technology becomes archaic, and people stop paying attention to viral media, how will advertising agencies recapture the eyes and ears of the public? Will advertising messages be integrated into our daily lives to the point where we cannot distinguish between advertising and “real life”? Will viral videos change their landscape to mobile technology, as we are becoming more “plugged in” and tethered as a society? I predict that even as we become less influenced by marketing messages in the future, the advertising industry will nonetheless find a way to steal our attention back. As I’ve learned in my viral marketing research this summer, nobody is truly immune to advertising.


Case Study #5: Burger King

5 Aug

As media and technology evolve, we must adapt as consumers and companies. What used to be an effective technological medium in the past may no longer be effective or even relevant today. This seems to hold true at an increasing pace with the development of digital technology.

By mid-21st century, advertising agencies were coming to realize that they had lost the attention of a large and extremely important demographic: adults aged 18-34. With the emergence of digital culture and particularly digital video recorders (DVR), the young adults of Generations X and Y were becoming resistant to traditional advertisements and increasingly more difficult to reach via television ads.

When advertising agency Crispin Porter + Bogusky was given the task of marketing Burger King’s new TenderCrisp chicken sandwich in 2004, they focused their efforts on a medium that was more likely to recapture the attention of this extraordinarily valuable group: the Internet.

What they came up with was a humorous integrated campaign called “Subservient Chicken”. The most viral  component of the campaign was a website called “Subservient Chicken” (created by The Barbarian Group for Crispin Porter + Bogusky). The website features a human dressed in a chicken suit embodying the classic Burger King tagline, “Have it your way.”

"Lay on the sofa."

Upon accessing the site, the viewers are prompted to type in commands to the chicken, and subsequently, the chicken will obey. Subservient Chicken does almost anything the customer asks; it responds to over 300 commands, including “Moonwalk”, “raise the roof”, “Shakespeare”, “fart”, “lay on the sofa”, “do Yoga”, “drink a Coke”, and “march like a German soldier”. When asked to perform sex acts or anything offensive, the chicken will walk up to the camera and shake his “chicken finger” in disappointment. When asked to eat Burger King or a Whopper, the chicken will give the audience a thumbs up. When asked to eat McDonald’s, the chicken will pretend to vomit.

Didn't your mother teach you better than that?

Subservient Chicken is creepy- in an awesome “I want to visit your brand’s website and spend several minutes playing on it!” type of way. Although some people immediately comprehend that the chicken’s footage is pre-recorded and pulled from a database when specific commands are signaled, it still makes most people wonder, “How the heck does it do that?” I myself, already a graduate student in Emerging Media and Communication at the time, was perplexed the first time I viewed the website. “What?! How does it know what I’m typing?” That creepy chicken blew my mind.

Whether Subservient Chicken creeps you out or not, it is undeniable that the campaign was a success. Between its launch on Wednesday, April 7, 2004 and the following Wednesday, the site had 46 million hits. At the time of its launch, the site was averaging 6-8 million visitors per day, and average visits lasted 7-9 minutes. The website went extremely viral, receiving more than 7,000,000 broadcast impressions. The campaign was heavily blogged about and discussed among marketing professionals (and is still a frequent example of a successful viral marketing campaign).

Today, the site has well over 450 million hits. Crispin Porter + Bogusky report on their website that Burger King experienced a “significant increase in chicken sales that can be directly linked to the success of the site”. In explaining their marketing strategy for Burger King, the agency makes a statement that embodies the conclusions I have discovered through my viral marketing research:

“This site has showed how successful an advertiser can be when they entertain and let people discover the message and the brand”.

Let the people discover the message themselves. Out of the four prior marketing case studies I discussed, the two unsuccessful campaigns were those that attempted to force a marketing message upon the consumer. Although GM gave the people the power to create their own material, they implied that the marketing message should be a favorable one, as advertisements are intended to be positive. Wal-Mart not only tried to convince their audience that their employees thought the company was a great place to work, but they also utilized deception in their campaign.

Burger King implemented a similar strategy to those of Whole Foods and Old Spice; their campaigns can all be summarized in three simple (or are they simple?) characteristics:

  1. Do something interesting.
  2. Be funny.
  3. Don’t oversell your brand.

Rather than glorifying its brand, Whole Foods allowed a performing artist to mock its own brand in the Whole Foods Parking Lot video. Although Old Spice implied benefits of using its body wash with the Old Spice Guy campaign, it did so in a satiric way that was not meant to be taken seriously. Similarly, Burger King declines to promote the quality of its product in the Subservient Chicken advertisement. In fact, Burger King’s logo is only subtly included on the website; nowhere in the chicken video does the brand’s name come up.

It has become evident that the marketing campaigns that go viral are created by companies who make it seem like they are not explicitly trying to promote their brands. The way you get people to like your brand and want to spread its content is the same way you make friends- be pleasant, and don’t try too hard. As we have seen with this series of case studies, making friends doesn’t come as easily for some brands as it does for others.

Case Study #4: Wal-Mart

29 Jul

At this point in my research of viral marketing campaigns, it is evident that a trend exists among successful campaigns. The successful campaigns are those that seemingly separate their brand from the marketing message, and decline to actually promote the features of their brand. In the “Whole Foods Parking Lot” case, it is ambiguous whether or not Whole Foods even played a role in creating the campaign. The video playfully mocks the Whole Foods brand rather than praising it. Although the Old Spice Guy suggests that using Old Spice body wash makes men irresistible, the marketing message is clearly exaggerated and not meant to be taken seriously; it is just for fun.

When creating content intended to go viral, the worst thing a company can do is overly self-promote itself. We saw with GM that asking their audience to recognize a brand’s features will not prompt them to spread the word- it will merely alienate them from the brand. This next company, Wal-Mart, is a perfect case of “How not to attempt viral marketing” with their failed blogging campaign.

On September 27, 2006, a blog by the name of “Wal-Marting Across America” was launched by a couple named Jim and Laura. The two made a trip across the United States (from Las Vegas to Georgia) in their RV, parked overnight in Wal-Mart parking lots (since Wal-Mart allows RVs to park for free), and documented the lives and stories of Wal-Mart employees at each of their stops. The concept was unique, and the storyline was seemingly believable- until readers noticed a peculiar trend amongst the employees that were interviewed. Here is an excerpt from a post written about their stop in Dallas, TX:

Nicole Brown is quick to praise her manager, Stephan Gordon, for making her work environment so positive. The feeling is mutual as Stephan takes time out from his round-the-clock rush during inventory to sing her praises as well, here in the Montfort Drive Wal-Mart Supercenter.

…. really? This is Wal-Mart we’re talking about, right? The same company that is notorious for underpaying its staff, is rumored to refuse providing health care for its employees, and is repeatedly in the news regarding its shady employee relations. What is it about Wal-Mart that these supposed employees are seemingly doing back flips about, then?

As skepticism soared regarding the legitimacy of the blog, BusinessWeek investigated the issue and were the first to get to the bottom of the story. The article revealed the couple to be James Thresher, a 58-year-old photographer for the Washington Post, and Laura St. Claire, a 42-year-old freelance writer working for the U.S. Treasury Department. The couple was not married, but had been living together in Washington D.C. for eight years.

St. Claire explained that the idea for the blog was originally hers. The couple had children attending college in both Pennyslvania and North Carolina, and they planned on visiting them in their RV and parking in Wal-Mart parking lots along the way. St. Claire initially wanted to blog about their journey for a company that caters to RVs, but first asked permission from Working Families for Wal-Mart, an organization created by Edelman, Wal-Mart’s public relations firm that St. Claire was affiliated with, to use their name.

Naturally, Working Families for Wal-Mart loved the idea. They gave St. Claire permission to use their name, but added a “slight” twist to the blog. Working Families flew the couple to Las Vegas, provided them with a RV marked with their logo, and paid for all expenses of the trip, including gasoline and the cost of setting up/maintaining the blog. The only mention of Working Families’ connection to the blog was the inclusion of their logo on the blog’s homepage; the website did not mention that the organization had paid for the couple’s flight, RV and gas.

Somehow, Thresher and St. Claire were outraged at the negative publicity the blog received after its funding was revealed. They defended the blog, and claimed that the Wal-Mart employees they met genuinely held these attitudes regarding their employment at Wal-Mart. They felt that they were being “attacked” for simply writing about what they witnessed.

Wal-Mart denied any involvement with the blog and refused to comment. “It was a Working Families for Wal-Mart Initiative, and we didn’t have anything to do with it”, said Wal-Mart spokesman David Tovar.

Despite Wal-Mart’s lack of association with the campaign, the store apparently suffered negative repercussions due to the media backlash following it. According to a study by McKinsey & Co., Wal-Mart’s consulting firm, 2-8% of Wal-Mart shoppers discontinued shopping there because of negative press the same year.

Richard Edelman, CEO of Edelman, ultimately wrote: “I want to acknowledge our error in failing to be transparent about the identity of the two bloggers from the outset. This is 100% our responsibility and our error; not the client’s.”

It is glaringly obvious where Working Families for Wal-Mart went wrong with this campaign. Not only did it showcase a biased, unlikely portrayal of Wal-Mart and its employees, it was deceptive in nature. In his discussion of the effects of public relations in Media Virus!, Douglass Rushkoff states, “The…most debilitating effect of media propaganda is that it intentionally misrepresents reality.” By omitting the fact that the blogging trip was 100% sponsored by Wal-Mart’s PR firm, Working Families for Wal-Mart violated the rules of ethical marketing.

In retrospect, Wal-Marting Across America did indeed go viral. The results just didn’t favor Wal-Mart.

Case Study 3 – Old Spice

22 Jul

The end goal of a television advertisement is to sell a product. TV ads are not created to entertain us. Every once in a while, however, an ad is so enjoyable and so captivating that we forget it is an attempt to promote a brand, and we regard it purely as a form of entertainment. This is what happened in the case of Old Spice, a leading brand in men’s grooming products.

On February 8, 2010, Old Spice released its first commercial of what would become the “Old Spice Guy” campaign- “The Man Your Man Could Smell Like”.

The commercial was created by Portland-based ad agency Wieden + Kennedy and starred former NFL wide receiver Isaiah Mustafa. Created to market Old Spice’s brand of shower gel and seemingly targeted at females, the original ad portrays a shirtless, towel-wearing Mustafa in an “everything is possible” series of events. Mustafa satirically suggests that if men use Old Spice shower gel, they too can be as sexy and sought-after as he.

The ad was wildly successful.  It won the Grand Prix for Film award at the Cannes Lions International Advertising Festival and the Primetime Emmy award for Outstanding Commercial in 2010, and has over 34 million views on YouTube today. What is truly remarkable about this campaign, however, is the social media campaign that followed “Questions”,  Old Spice’s third commercial.

Old Spice followed up with a YouTube campaign featuring Mustafa reprising the same character. Mustafa created a series of over 100 hilarious brief videos personally responding to fans’ comments on Twitter, Facebook, and blogs. The responses included an attempt to woo celebrity actress Alyssa Milano, a phone call from a “dangerous prairie wolf”, and even a marriage proposal. The videos erupted on YouTube, and the campaign’s success translated into Old Spice’s sales. In June 2010, Neilson ratings revealed that Old Spice’s sales had more than doubled (a 107% sales increase) in the months following the social media campaign. The videos achieved millions of views quicker than previous pop culture viral videos such as Susan Boyle and the Barack Obama election victory speech. Today, the videos in total have over 135 million views on YouTube.

So what factors played into the Old Spice Guy becoming such a successful viral marketing campaign? Old Spice shares some of the characteristics of the Whole Foods Parking Lot video discussed a couple of weeks ago.

  1. The campaign is undoubtedly funny. Old Spice’s satirical marketing message of, “If you use Old Spice body wash, you can be like me”, is not meant to be taken seriously, and the campaign is original, creative, and playful.
  2. The Old Spice Guy is a likeable character. First of all, he is attractive, and it is common knowledge amongst marketers that people trust good-looking people (which is why models and spokespeople are always attractive). His charming and outrageous personality is admired by males and females alike, and people are drawn to him. We want to see what the Old Spice guy has to say to the next fan.
  3. The original commercials are somewhat complex. The commercials are shot in single, uninterrupted takes and contain computer-generated imagery and several scene changes. They are fascinating.
  4. Finally, the main factor responsible for the success of the Old Spice guy campaign has to do with how Henry Jenkins describes “spreadable content” in “If It Doesn’t Spread, It’s Dead” . In Part 6, Jenkins distinguishes between “stickiness” and “spreadability”, and explains that a video’s spreadability is what makes it go viral. In order for people to be motivated to share info or content, the content should “bolster camaraderie and articulate shared experiences and values that identity oneself as belonging to a particular community”. The video encourages people to submit videos and participate so that they too can be part of the Old Spice community. People are drawn to pop culture phenomena and desire to be part of the “in-crowd”.

As the campaign grew successful and people continued to ask the Old Spice Guy questions, more and more people wanted to participate and see for themselves what the campaign was all about. Even celebrities approached the Old Spice guy so they, too could have a response video made. Demi Moore, for example, tweeted, “Old Spice Guy- I want a special video wow!!!” As more people- especially celebrities and public figures got involved, more people wanted in. The personal element of the video responses created a desire to be included, and accounted for much of the social media campaign’s extraordinary success.

Most of the viral marketing campaigns in the media today are lackluster, or average at best. The Old Spice campaign demonstrated that in order to make people want to share your content, you must not only make it very funny, but you must create something “spreadable” that your audience will genuinely want to share. A major contrast between what Old Spice and GM did was that Old Spice focused on the consumer, while GM ultimately focused on its own brand by asking customers to create a commercial for their brand.

In order for people to like your campaign, you must provide really great content. What may sound like a simple concept is clearly much easier said than done.

Case Study #2: GM’s Chevy Tahoe

14 Jul

User generated content- what a simple concept! All you have to do is put your brand in the hands of your customers. They will create neat content promoting your brand, pass it along to all of their friends, and soon the public will be immersed with your brand. That is how you make a campaign go viral. Right?

Wrong. Way wrong.

Unfortunately for GM, they figured this out the hard way- or should have figured it out, anyway.

In March 2006, GM did a cross-promotion with the NBC Show The Apprentice for its Chevrolet Tahoe SUV. Created by advertising agency Campbell-Ewald in Warren, Michigan, the campaign encouraged viewers to visit (site since removed) to create their own 30 second Chevy Tahoe commercial for the chance to win prizes. The site provided viewers with video and music clips, and publicly displayed all of the videos being created by the contributors.

GM viewed this as an opportunity to dive into the newly introduced trend of user generated advertising, in which the customers themselves can help promote a brand through conversation, utilizing new digital technology. The campaign took a turn for the worst, however, when a portion of the audience positioned the Tahoe as an inferior vehicle, as well as an enemy to the environment. Some contributors used the viral campaign as an opportunity to charge GM with contributing to global warming, protest the war in Iraq, make crude sexual references, and worst of all, criticize the Tahoe’s quality. These submitted ads contained taglines such as, “Yesterday’s technology today” and “Global warming isn’t a pretty SUV ad – it’s a frightening reality”, and “Phallus in Wonderland” (Huh? Ohhh…) GM had given away control over its brand messaging. Specimens below:



GM responded to the plethora of negative submissions by removing videos with “offensive and inflammatory” content (That means you, Phallus), but did not remove material based solely on a “negative tone” towards the brand. Despite the extremely negative response from a portion of the audience, GM’s spokespeople referred to the campaign as a success. Users submitted over 21,000 ads, e-mailed GM over 40,000 times, viewed the ChevyApprentice page 2.4 million times, and stayed on the page for an average of nine minutes. The campaign engaged the audience as anticipated, sparked conversation, and generated publicity (All publicity is good publicity, right?) for the brand.

GM spokeswoman Melisa Tezanos stated, “There are many different opinions and many different people, and we recognize that.” Regardless of the negative responses, Tezanos claimed that over 80% of the commercials submitted were favorable.

Although the Chevy Tahoe brand did gain an exceptional amount of exposure as a result of this campaign, it is hard to believe that GM genuinely considers this a successful campaign. Unlike the “Whole Foods Parking Lot” viral video I discussed last week, it was not ambiguous whether or not GM played a role in the mockery of its brand- these ads were clearly user-driven. While a handful of the negative ads were playful and light-hearted, many of them communicated grave concerns about GM’s role in protecting the environment.

I consider this campaign a failed attempt at viral marketing. The first thing that GM did wrong here was fail to acknowledge that bad news spreads exponentially faster than good news. Even though the vast majority of the videos submitted were favorable, the media naturally only focused on the negative ones. GM was foolish to think that users would want to share a self-generated commercial for an SUV with their friends if the content merely contained a positive message about GM’s brand. What would make this type of video go viral? Shocking, confusing, compelling content- not ads that promote the Chevy Tahoe. If GM claimed to have foreseen a handful of these responses, they should have prevented the campaign from running in the first place.

The second reason this campaign failed is one that would make Scott Stratten shake his head. In UnMarketing, another book I read for the purpose of this project, Stratten rejects traditional marketing tactics in which companies attempt to “push” an idea or concept onto the consumer, and emphasizes relationship building as an alternative to coercive marketing strategies. Although it appeared that GM was generating conversation and inviting the audience to merely “play” with their brand, they were ultimately asking the audience to create an advertisement for their brand.

By definition, an advertisement attempts to sell a product. This attempt at viral marketing did not focus on creating a relationship with the customer. The campaign was a bit arrogant, as GM assumed that the audience would think highly enough of their product that they would promote it in an advertisement. I imagine that a handful of consumers were insulted that GM would ask their audience to essentially show them and the world how great the Chevy Tahoe was.

Not all user-generated content campaigns have been failures. Companies such as Old Spice and Budweiser have created campaigns using content submitted by others to create incredibly successful viral campaigns. Both of these campaigns benefitted the user by creating humorous, buzz-worthy content. What GM did wrong, on the other hand, was focus on their own brand as the end-product, rather than creating content that the audience themselves would find entertaining.

It’s not always about you, GM…

Case Study #1: Whole Foods

8 Jul

You stop by the grocery store on your way home to pick up a few items. The parking lot is a zoo, and your rare chance at getting a parking spot is stripped away by a car coming the wrong way. Once you finally make it in grocery store, the items you came for are sold out, some jackass is yapping away on his iPhone in the aisles, and you leave paying an outrageous amount for what you purchased.

Who hasn’t been in these shoes before? It is a scene we are quite familiar with and can all relate to. It’s so familiar that California rapper DJDave, aka Dave Whitman, and his production company Fog and Smog Productions decided to make a parody video illustrating the scenario. To incorporate humor and irony into his video, DJDave chose the #1 icon for healthy food and lifestyles as his set: Whole Foods.

“Whole Foods Parking Lot” was shot about a month ago at a Whole Foods in Santa Monica, California, and was officially released on June 12th. Within one week, the video had over 1.1 million views on YouTube. Today, almost four weeks later, it has surpassed 2 million views. For the purpose of my capstone project, this video is an example of what I will now refer to as a “viral video”.

The video has several elements that could potentially be responsible for its viral reception:

  1. The video is hilarious. It made me laugh, and prompted me to share it with my friends so they could get a laugh too. People like to laugh.
  2. The video contains a catchy song. It is pleasurable to listen to, and the beat and chorus resonated in my mind long after I watched it the first time. People like good music.
  3. The video refers to media trends and pop culture phenomena such as “Master Cleanse”, an elixir made of cayenne pepper, maple syrup, water, and lemon juice, and Kombucha, a popular sweetened tea Whole Foods recently pulled from their shelves due to its alcohol content. People are drawn to pop culture.

Finally, the element that I find to be the most responsible for the viral nature of the video:

4.  The video is ironic and raises unanswered questions. The main character finds himself in a series of ironic situations, and further, Whole Foods’ response to the video is unsuspected and quite puzzling.

In Media Virus!, a book I read for this project a couple weeks ago, Douglas Rushkoff differentiates between old-fashioned public relations and a “media virus”. “The easy way to tell the difference between a media virus and…public relations…is to determine whether it makes an issue simple and emotional or dauntingly complex”, explains Rushkoff. DJDave demonstrates the latter strategy in “Whole Foods Parking Lot” by incorporating a series of ironic scenarios and unexplained reactions.

First, DJDave seems a bit out of place at Whole Foods. He’s a rapper who uses urban dialect and wears an NBA baseball cap. However, he apparently has an affinity for organic foods, drives a Prius, and buys Humboldt Fog (really, Dog?).

Moreover, DJDave is agitated and uptight in a stereotypically pleasant atmosphere. Whole Foods is recognized as a lovely, healthy food mecca- or as DJDave puts it in an interview with The Wall Street Journal, a “nice comfy little epicenter of Los Angeles”. The fact that DJDave is in attack-mode with fellow Whole Foods patrons is delightfully ironic and humorous.

Finally, it is unknown whether or not Whole Foods endorsed the video (although we in the marketing world think this is a no-brainer: yes). Whole Foods denies any partnerships with Fog and Smog productions. DJDave tells interviewers , “It was not something I did to promote Whole Foods or promote Kombucha; we just did it to have fun.” He also claims that Whole Foods has a no-video policy and they shot without permission, and that Whole Foods asked “very politely” for the video crew to leave.

However, Whole Foods certainly condones the video. Whole Foods’ media reps have responded to the video by calling it “a great piece of video”, “playful”, and “entertaining”. “We’ve always believed Whole Foods Market stores inspire creativity, even in our parking lots”, says Sirr Less, Whole Foods’ Vice President of Communications. In fact, Whole Foods appears to be aiding in the viral dissemination of the video. It is very ironic (and extremely interesting) that Whole Foods approves of the video, as it contains the word “shit”, mocks its patrons, and criticizes the store’s inordinate prices (“Pay my 80 bucks for 6 things and get the heck out”).

Regardless of whether Whole Foods endorsed the video or not, it has served the brand well. At the current moment, the video has had 2,110,237 views. Although I am unsure of the number of Facebook fans Whole Fans had as of June 12, its Facebook fan base has increased by 4% since June 18 (654,046 fans vs. 628,670 fans).

DJDave has revealed that he is being approached by companies to make similar videos for their brands, and says that he is turned off by the requests. “The point of it was being honest and funny. I’m a grown man”, says DJDave. “I have a day job.”

If “Whole Foods Parking Lots” success continues to spread at this viral speed and Fog and Smog Productions choose to follow with new videos, however, DJDave might want to consider switching day jobs…

Week 5 Annotated Bibliography

30 Jun

Rushkoff, Douglas. Coercion: Why We Listen to What “they” Say. New York: Riverhead, 1999. Print.

Douglas Rushkoff introduces his book Coercion by tricking the reader into assuming that coercion is evil in nature. However, the introduction is written merely to prove the potential influence and effectiveness of coercive techniques. Throughout the course of the book, he takes on a more neutral tone regarding these techniques, and merely dissects the practices persuaders use in society today. Rushkoff does not believe that coercive techniques in society should be seen as “the enemy”, and believes that we ultimately have the power to recognize the strategies that are used: “As we become more conscious of how [coercive forces work], we can begin to dismantle them” (Rushkoff 23).

Rushkoff provides a very compelling example of a marketing campaign gone wrong in his chapter about advertising. He tells the story of former advertising agency Wells BDDP’s campaign for Amstel beer, in which they created a fictional character, “Garrison Boyd”, who “attacked Amstel’s billboards” with slogans like “Resist the Amstels from Amsterdam!” and “Shield your eyes!” (166). Boyd was the founder of the fictional organization Americans for Disciplined Behavior, which looked down upon anything fromAmsterdam. Although the campaign generated an enormous amount of buzz and excitement, it failed to translate into sales. Rushkoff blames this on the lack of content in the campaign- “Boyd is a great viral shell, but there’s no content inside him” (167).

With regards to “viral” marketing campaigns, perhaps this example demonstrates that in order to create buzz in the media, all you need is a provocative idea. In order to elicit the kinds of emotions that will make customers pull out their pocket books, however, a good campaign must have compelling content. Contrary to Greenberg, content IS king.

Bernays, Edward L., and Mark Crispin. Miller. Propaganda. Brooklyn, NY: Ig Pub., 2005. Print.

Edward Bernays’ Propaganda provided me with a drastically different viewpoint of propaganda and public relations from my previous reading selections. Bernays believes that not only is propaganda good, it is “an important element in society” (Bernays 37). He explains that society needs propaganda the same way that we need demonstration of similar products in the marketplace- otherwise we’d have confusion.

Bernays refutes the wide-held belief that propaganda is negative by tracing the history of the word. He promotes the concept of public relations specialists, as this “counsel” works with “modern media and communications…[to bring] an idea to the consciousness of the public” (67).

Rushkoff would likely say that Bernays’ claims are dangerous, because by putting the idea in terms that the audience can understand, public relations professionals omit the “bigger picture” of an idea and offer a simplified version.  In regards to marketing, this book makes me question the role a marketer plays in a campaign- are marketers the “good guys” attempting to demonstrate a product to avoid confusion, or are they manipulatively putting the product in simplified terms that we will all relate to, and thus want to purchase?