Viral Ads: On the Way Out?

20 11 2008

Viral ad campaigns usually involve some kind of video floating around in cyberspace, usually at home at YouTube and generating waves from there. Many taboo TV commercials that are too risqué for certain markets have become viral, and the risqué part obviously is the driving force behind the high distribution through blogs, email and other media sharing Web sites. The recent Levi’s “Unbutton Your Beast” viral campaign comes to mind. It consisted of a pair of jeans that users could customize to release a “beast” of your choice: from a crab (are they selling STDs?) to a trout to a fuzzy blue and orange rapper to a razor tooth type of creature. You can see a feature of this one at Breitbart.tv. The target audience – young men – find this one nasty, and kind of funny, which just helps its viral spread.

But although viral videos are still getting hits, and big-time names like Anhauser-Busch are using them, with the tumbling economy, some viral companies are tightening the purse strings and not creating as many videos, as well as laying off staff members. The viral video craze has saturated the online market with videos, so now you have to do something special to get your ad to be viral. Web-only production companies like 60Frames and Revision 3 have had recent layoffs. “There was a lot of cheap money out there,” said Jake Zim, COO of Safran Digital Group. “It created more product than there is demand for.” He also noted that with the 2007 writers strike also added more talented people to the Web pool for a while. All those writers that flooded the Web market created (or helped create) great videos that raised the bar and some of the writers stayed in the viral biz.

The viral biz of last year, dubbed a “spray and pray” model for the uploading of videos to YouTube, Veoh and Hulu, and then waiting for the audience to come, isn’t working anymore. Now advertisers want to be sure there is already an audience in place. With scarce marketing budgets, no one wants to gamble on whether an ad video will get the number of hits as it could count on before. The risk has gone way up.

But viral ads do work when people are viewing them – they don’t have time constraints like TV 30-second spots, they don’t have to be censored and many are made to look like a hand-held camera shot them, which makes them look like all the other viral videos out there.

A new company, called Dandelion, is trying to revive the slowing viral ad market by renaming viral video “dandelions” because they sow their brand messages and multiply across the Web like dandelions in our yards. Dandelion has brought on some experienced writers, like Eric Gilliland from “My Boys” and “That 70s Show,” but how long can this “brand storyteller” (Dandelion is not an ad agency, it claims) keep going when viral is going downhill for the majority of companies on the Web? Only time will tell.

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