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05 December 2023

Infectious new trend sweeps ad industry

By Keith J Fernandez



If you’ve ever forwarded one of those Burger King commercials in your e-mail or accepted an invitation to use Gmail, you have been a target of viral marketing. The term has surfaced anew in advertising boardrooms following the success of the monster movie Cloverfield in cinemas this week. With a campaign constructed around ambiguity and secrecy, where even its name was kept secret for months, the movie has successfully driven audiences into cinemas around the world.


The JJ Abrams-produced film grossed $132 million (Dh484.7m) globally on a production budget of $25m, according to boxofficemojo.com. It follows in the style of 1999 cult film The Blair Witch Project, which took in $248m and only cost $60,000 to make.


So what is viral marketing, you ask? Very simply, perhaps the best sort of marketing there is. Mildly infectious at worst, but boosting bottom lines when successful, the concept is an extension of good old fashioned word-of-mouth. Essentially a fashion branding model that relies on taste leaders to set trends and create must-have desirability, it uses pre-existing social networks to raise brand awareness in a way analogous to self-replicating viruses. Call it active advertising.


Put out a commercial – or image, Flash game, text message – that stimulates and engages the viewer, and you can get the consumer to do all the work for you by moving the message along to his peers as a kind of surrogate marketing agent, said design and marketing communications strategist Hink Huisman, who owns the UAE-based firm Image Creators.


Best of all it is low cost: all it takes is the initial creation cost. Distribution is free – and fast – with the proliferation of Web 2.0 platforms such as Facebook, YouTube, Collabotrade and Digg. These sites merge viral marketing with social networking, allowing users to both share fun videos with their friends as well as check out what their friends are receiving and using.


And with platforms like this, viral marketing goes beyond the movies. It is not a new phenomenon, said Grant Bishop, Dubai-based director of Home Entertainment, Prime and Sony Pictures.


“We’ve seen word of mouth work in music with movements such as punk, and in art with the likes of [British street artist] Banksy. In the movies, you had The Blair Witch Project, and you had The Passion of Christ, which grossed $400m.”


Online products such as Hotmail, Gmail and Facebook all spread virally: Hotmail by advertising itself at the bottom of every message sent out at a time when e-mail was expensive and Gmail by way of a cool invitation-only appeal.



Brands like Burger King, Budweiser and Snapple have all used the strategy to up their appeal, as have Microsoft and Volvo. It is the perfect way to reach the entertainment-on-demand YouTube generation of consumers, with everyone from Barack Obama to the Queen of England involved in some way or other. In the second quarter of last year alone, an estimated $10m of contributions to Obama’s presidential campaign were made online, 90 per cent in increments of $100 or less, while the Queen uses her YouTube channel as a PR device to connect with new fans.


Even philanthropy can work virally: last Ramadan, UAE developer Nakheel gave one dirham to charity for every wish made on a specially created website, and then prompted users to invite their friends to do the same.


Other movies that are set to use viral marketing are JJ Abram’s Star Trek, as well as the newest installment of the Batman franchise, The Dark Knight. Both already have strong viral campaigns under way in the form of online alternate reality games.


“Nowadays online marketing is in high demand because everyone uses the internet for at least a few minutes every day, browsing news or checking e-mail,” said Carly Ramia Habis, marketing manager at Gulf Film, which distributed Cloverfield.


But before you reach out to Facebookers, you have got to create the hook that gets viewers involved. Cloverfield’s Abrams, who created the popular TV show Lost, also known for its myths, cryptic symbols and dedicated online followers, set the pace for the film last July, with a trailer featuring the Statue of Liberty getting its head blown off.

After that, cryptic messages sent moviegoers on an online scavenger hunt to decode clues about the movie’s plot and title, while various, seemingly random, websites fuelled consumer interest: one advertised a Japanese drink called Slusho, another featured a range of sporadically updated photos, a third gave details of a Japanese company with a drilling operation off the coast of New York.


While it may be hard to determine how those elements connect to a film about a group of young people trying to save their friend and told from the point of view of a partygoer’s hand-held video camera, the campaign worked because it kept the message fresh and interesting by putting out a regular supply of new pelts that kept online users excited.

They became the ones who sold the movie and broadcast each new installment as it was made available, wrote advertising professional Chris Thilk on his blog, Movie Marketing Madness.


“As we started it, we asked, how do we draw people in and have them say, ‘Hey, I want to know more about that. That looked cool, that looked intriguing,’” Rob Moore, Paramount vice-chairman, recently told the Associated Press.


Reports on the box office haul for Cloverfield have almost invariably described its marketing campaign as a risk that paid off. And best of all, not only did nobody feel cheated – as with The Blair Witch Project, an early example of viral marketing – but fans are eagerly awaiting the sequel. “Fortunately, they delivered a movie that was as unique and engaging as people had hoped from the marketing campaign,” said Moore.


Which explains why viral marketing does not work all the time. A movie that was similarly marketed was Snakes on a Plane, from which big things were expected – but it made just $15m on its opening weekend as compared to Cloverfield’s $41m.



Snakes on a Plane was a terrible movie. Word of mouth killed it,” said Bishop. “Viral marketing will only work if you have a good product to sell.” The likelihood of it working, he added, increases when your target audience is internet savvy males between the ages of 15 to 24, who get excited about the fruits of a viral campaign.

“Viral marketing works best when it is part of a campaign calculated to reach every segment of your audience,” said Image Creators’ Huisman.


“If it is the only weapon in your marketing communications arsenal, it had better be aimed at a precise target audience, or you could see your success rate plummet.”


Even Cloverfield used mainstream tools such as trailers, teaser posters and clips from the film.With movies, audiences respond very well to big campaigns and star interviews, particularly in the Middle East, added Gulf Film’s Ramia, underlining the need for other marketing tools. But is anything immune to infection? Can viral marketing come a cropper? With Cloverfield, it did: Abrams recently told media that two key sites were driving viewers to the movie, EthanHaasWasWrong.com and EthanHaasWasRight.com, were not connected with the film.

 “They’re nothing to do with us,” he was quoted by the entertainment news site, aintitcool.com, as saying. Clearly, if your message is shrouded in secrecy, you risk becoming a victim of your own game.


Viral marketing also only works for films that allow for a measure of secrecy and suspense. “You could never pull this off with I Am Legend, because you could never hire Will Smith and have no one know it,” Paramount’s Moore told the Los Angeles Times.

Finally, hampering the successful use of viral marketing strategies here in the region is the lack of specific, locally created blogs and review sites that can help build brands effectively, said Bishop.

Added Huisman, “In more developed markets, people are more geared to doing everything over the internet. The internet is the most consumers’ first stop. Here, they reach for the phone instead.”

That, of course, is a whole other can of marketing worms.