- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 23, 2012

It’s every marketer’s dream - create the ad that goes viral and generates tens of millions of Internet hits for your product. Now researchers are seeking the alchemical formula for creating the next Old Spice guy on a horse or the Evian Water roller-skating babies.

The competition is fierce, and the process turns out to be at least as much art as science. While some of the best minds in advertising and marketing have been put to the task, the reigning champ of viral ads - at least based on more than 170 million YouTube hits logged so far - is a series of essentially self-produced spots featuring Blendtec President Tom Dickson wearing goggles and stuffing objects such as video game remotes and golf balls into his company’s line of blenders.

Still, that hasn’t stopped researchers from seeking the secret behind what Harvard Business School instructor Thales Teixeira calls the “holy grail” of modern advertising. Mr. Teixeira said in an interview that his research has found a few consistent themes in what makes an ad go viral.

“One of them is that the way they are made is a little bit different than the way normal video ads or normal commercials are made,” he said. “They have a higher degree of entertainment; therefore, they get more attention.”

Such ads, he noted, “want to be sort of a little more bombastic, more exciting, more interesting, to sort of trigger the viewer to actually want to share it.”

In the most recent issue of the Harvard Business Review, Mr. Teixeira detailed findings from a study he and some colleagues conducted last year that revealed key characteristics of how viral advertisements work. The researchers employed infrared eye-motion detection and facial analysis systems, in conjunction with known behavioral studies, to probe how viewers reacted to various ads.

Creating a viral ad is like stumbling upon a gold mine. It’s hard to make, but it’s even more difficult to send into the viral stratosphere. Many advertisers use a structure similar to that recommended by Mr. Teixeira’s research, but only a tiny number of those spots make it above the viewer levels that would be seen on broadcast and cable television.

Those few high fliers include Bud Light’s “Swear Jar,” Evian’s “Roller Babies” and Old Spice’s “The Man Your Man Can Smell Like.” Three of YouTube’s top 10 ads feature the shirtless Isaiah Mustafa pitching Old Spice deodorant and helping the revived brand become one of the top sellers in the market.

These ads all display key elements such as an initial attention-getting sequence, an emotional “roller coaster” in the development of the ad with peaks of emotion and valleys of suspense, and intense endings. Less-successful ads, even when they mimic the golden formula, lack a crucial element that Mr. Teixeira calls “seating mechanisms” designed to target the right kinds of viewers.

He explained that extroverts and people who lean more toward egocentricity are more likely to share ads in order to boost their social status. This demographic, he said, is more likely to disseminate ads than altruists and to make ads and videos go viral.

“The so-called seating mechanism - where to place the ad and who to give it to first - actually is a better indicator of ad success than the content itself,” said Mr. Teixeira. “The content - you could hit a home run or you could fail miserably, but there’s another short way to actually increase viewership, which is sending these viral ads to people who have specific types of personalities and interests in sharing.”

Another tip: Employ “brand pulsing” - short, discreet views of the product you’re hawking - as opposed to placing the brand intrusively before the viewer throughout the spot. As Mr. Teixeira notes in his Harvard Business Review survey: “A good question to ask when conceiving an ad is: If I removed the brand image, would the content still be intrinsically interesting? If the answer is yes, viewers are more likely to keep watching.”

But is there a correlation between viewership and sales?

Michel Wedel, who studied consumer science at the University of Maryland and collaborated with Mr. Teixeira, said there is a “conditional” correlation between Web-based popularity and the corporate bottom line. “The more viewers, the higher sales,” he said, while cautioning that the correlation is not high in many cases, for a number of reasons.

“First, the quality of an ad matters,” Mr. Wedel said, “and especially the extent to which the ad is able to communicate its central message and engage the viewer emotionally. Second, most ads work over longer periods of time.”

The Bud Light “Swear Jar” ad, produced by DDB Worldwide, wins praise from researchers for hooking the viewer at the beginning with a twist: When employees learn that the money in the new office swear jar will be used to buy Bud Light, they purposefully let loose with curses and blue language to boost the fund.

Despite the growing academic work, Mr. Wedel said, he has not seen much of a change in Web-based ads and suggested that it might be because advertising professionals may not be aware of studies. Mr. Teixeira said that most agencies operate with a trial-and-error strategy, and that successful viral advertising came from “a process of unconscious learning” from agencies.

“They try things and it doesn’t work and they keep trying other things through trial and error [and] they eventually learn some of these mechanisms,” Mr. Teixeira said.

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