Lentis/Viral Marketing

Viral Marketing is the process of an advertisement spreading from consumer to consumer, rather than from company to consumer. In conventional marketing, companies try to advertise directly to groups of likely consumers. Viral marketing attempts to spread advertisement more cost-efficiently by having consumers spread the word to each other. [1] The major participants of viral marketing are companies and their potential customers. However, as shown with cases such as Casey Neistat or Dave Carroll, anybody can become a participant in viral marketing.


The first known use of viral marketing was by Hotmail in 1998. With the sudden rise of the internet, email companies were trying to find creative ways to convince new users to use their services. Tim Draper and Steve Jurvetson are credited with suggesting the use of viral marketing. They did so by adding a link at the end of every email sent from a Hotmail client, asking the recipient to sign up for an account. Using this technique, Hotmail was able to add over 12 million new users in under 2 years.[2]

With the rise of social media and sharing websites such as Facebook and YouTube over the last decade, opportunities for individuals to share products they like are more prevalent than ever before. Users are now able to quickly share links or information that can garner millions of views in a matter of days.


Company InitiatedEdit

While viral marketing relies on peer-to-peer communication, companies can initialize or foster this discussion. Here, we consider two cases of well-known viral marketing campaigns initiated by the companies they benefit.

Old SpiceEdit

As a widely recognizable advertising figure, the Old Spice Man is an example of a viral marketing campaign. The Proctor and Gamble company Old Spice launched the campaign during the Super Bowl XLIV. Following the initial commercial launch, Isaiah Mustafa (the former wide-receiver who plays the Old Spice Man) took to Twitter and responded to questions on manliness from Twitter users, as well as created custom video shorts in response to some messages.[3] The absurdist humor and immediate Twitter interaction made this a successful viral marketing campaign and a well-known meme.

As the interest in the campaign spread, Old Spice doubled-down on using Isaiah Mustafa's character for advertising. Thanks to users of Reddit, a fan created the website Old Spice Voicemail[4]. On this website, fans of the Old Spice Man can create and download an audio file to use as their voicemail answering message, using key phrases from commercials. This further spreads the recognition of the Old Spice Man with every fan who used this as their answering machine message. While the phrases were lifted from text of recordings made by Old Spice, the website was conceived of and developed independently of the Old Spice marketing team.


Figure 1: Search trends for Deadpool over time, compared with the term Avengers.

A more recent example of viral marketing is found in the campaign leading up to the release of the movie Deadpool. In this case, 20th Century Fox wanted to headline a movie with a lesser-known superhero (in comparison to other recent superhero movies featuring the Avengers, Superman, Batman, and Spiderman). To combat this issue, they launched a viral marketing campaign to build name recognition and excitement leading up to the movie. Utilizing many creative techniques, the campaign worked and launched Deadpool to be the highest-grossing R-rated film of all time.[5]

As with Old Spice, Deadpool sculpted their traditional commercials to encourage sharing on social media. They focused on humor that broke the fourth-wall; a technique used by the titular character in the comics and the movie. For example, they made a targeted commercial regarding Australia Day[6] and Superbowl 50[7]. They also spoofed well-known advertisements for entirely unrelated products, such as medication for erectile dysfunction[8], for humorous effect.

However, Deadpool went beyond creating shareable traditional advertisements. Turning to the oft-ridiculed world of clickbait, they created Clickpooler--a fake clickbait website that is actually a Deadpool advertisement. Users can select one of a variety of stereotypical clickbait headlines (e.g. "Try Not to Punch Your Monitor When You Read These Nine Misspelled Words" or "43 Secrets the Internet Will Never Tell You About Kittens!") and receive a link to share on their favorite social media website. When shared, the link appears to be a normal piece of clickbait (Clickpooler also provides a relevant preview image). When the link is followed, though, it takes the user to a page advertising Deadpool and encouraging them to "bait their friends."

One final technique we will consider here is Deadpool's emoji set. The Deadpool advertising campaign made a emoji sheet available for fans of the movie. Now, instead of sending the normal iOS smiling emoji (for example), avid fans could send a smiling Deadpool mask to their friends. Not only is this a reminder that Deadpool is coming to theaters, but it also creates a form of peer pressure between people who are using the default emojis and those who are using the novel Deadpool emojis.

This advertising campaign was highly successful. The campaign started in late December 2015 for the February release date. Shortly following this, the term Deadpool greatly increased in search volume. In comparison to the Avengers, another superhero movie released during a similar timeframe, Deadpool received a spike of nearly double the search volume (Figure 1).


In some situations, companies can create material that goes viral unintentionally, or something they had nothing to do with can go viral. One such case was a YouTube video published by nature photographer Brad Josephs.[9] While trying to get close-up footage of grizzly bears with his GoPro camera, one bear tried to eat the camera. This video quickly went viral, garnering 200,000 hits in under a week, and close to 2 million overall. After a year, GoPro republished the video on their own channel and gained millions of more views.[10] GoPro gained a large amount of positive press at a minimal cost compared to conventional advertising.


Viral marketing can also be used by consumers to attack entities that have wronged them in some way. As a tool for the consumer in the asymmetric struggle between producers and consumers, viral marketing is a disruptive technology. This nature is showcased in the following examples.

Bike Lanes: Casey NeistatEdit

A well-reported case from 2011, a New Yorker named Casey Neistat was given a $50 ticket for riding his bike out of the bike lane. He was frustrated with this, pointing out that "sometimes the bicycle lane is not the safest place to be" [11]

In response, Neistat produced a three minute video explaining his plight, and demonstrated the dangers of riding your bike within the bike lane. This took the form of filming himself riding his bike and running into various obstacles: trash cans, taxis, construction barriers, and a police car. While a single person's complaint usually does not have much of an impact, his video received over 18 million views (as of December 2016) and was ranked number 8 of Time magazine's Top 10 Creative Videos of 2011.[12]

United Breaks Guitars: Dave CarrollEdit

In some cases, viral marketing can be used in an intentionally negative way. One such example is that of Dave Carroll and his band, Sons of Maxwell. In 2008, while traveling, the band's instruments were damaged on a United Airlines flight.[13] Carroll subsequently made a series of videos calling out United for its alleged mistreatment of his guitar. The three videos combined for millions of views. The videos became so popular, United was forced to make a public statement apologizing to the band and contacted Carroll to compensate him accordingly. [14] This case shows the power that viral marketing gives to individuals. With just creative talent, Carroll was able to spread his message to millions of people and put pressure on large corporation.

Consumer ResponseEdit

Producing Viral ContentEdit

Many companies try to launch successful viral marketing campaigns, but only few are successful. A study by Millward Brown showed that only 15% of attempts at viral campaigns are successful.[15] Roger Wu, co-founder of Cooperatize, has found that there are two main ways that ad campaigns can go viral: the roadblock effect and the stagger effect. The roadblock effect is something that consumes many communication means in a very short amount of time, garnering millions of views in a matter of hours or days. The stagger effect is a more long-term viral campaign, that still gains a large viewership, but does so over a longer period of time, such as a music video on YouTube.[16] Even though these types of viral content are well established, Wu still states that the results can be unpredictable. Companies are drawn in by the potential spread of their name for a very low price, but it can end up backfiring. Overall, companies face the risk of spending time and resources producing material, only to see it get ignored on social media.[17]

Negative ReceptionEdit

In many cases, an attempt at viral marketing can backfire in unforeseen ways. In 2006, a couple named Jim and Laura wanted to travel across the country in an RV. Given many Walmart locations allow free overnight parking, they decided to camp out at a different Walmart each night. Throughout their journey, they documented their interactions with employees and customers of Walmart in a blog titled "Wal-Marting Across America".[18] However, a few months after the couple started blogging, people became suspicious of their motives. It was soon revealed that Jim and Laura were actually funded by PR firm Edelman, the firm that represents Walmart.[19] This resulted in a large amount of consumer backlash. Jim and Laura eventually deleted all of the posts they had previously put on the site and, along with Edelman, published an apology.[20] They tried to justify their actions by saying they planned the trip on their own, and Edelman offered to pay when they heard about it. Consumer response was still negative, given it was impossible to prove their true motives.

Future Work and ConclusionsEdit

The concept of viral marketing is vast, and there is much further research to be done. Future research could consider the application of viral marketing to political campaigns and explore more failed attempts at viral marketing. Finding differentiating factors between what "goes viral" and what remains essentially unknown is also of interest. The recent discussion of "fake news" may also have ties to viral advertising--by tying a fake message that strongly appeals to a certain demographic, website owners can earn large commissions on advertising.

Viral marketing is a powerful tool in the modern advertising landscape. With the advent of social media platforms, which enabled widespread peer-to-peer communication, using consumers as mouthpieces for a company is an important strategy for marketers. While some may view this as exploitative unpaid labor, it also makes every consumer's opinion more important to the company. For example, GoPro benefited from the message of a consumer who was pleased with the durability of his camera, while United Airlines has suffered in Dave Carroll's case.


  1. Techopedia. (2011). What is the difference between viral marketing and conventional marketing? Retrieved from https://www.techopedia.com/2/27885/it-business/what-is-the-difference-between-viral-marketing-and-conventional-marketing
  2. Think Etc. (2015). Understanding Viral Marketing. Retrieved from http://thinketc.com/understanding-viral-marketing/
  3. Reiss, C. (2010, July 18). Look here, now learn from this... Entrepreneur on NBCNews.com. Retrieved from http://www.nbcnews.com/id/38282026/ns/business-small_business/t/now-look-here-now-learn/#.WE7lDlzz3Zs.
  4. @OldSpice. (2010, July 14). Twitter Post. Retrieved from: https://twitter.com/OldSpice/status/18548796345
  5. Child, B. (2016, March 29). Deadpool becomes highest-grossing R-rated film of all time. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/film/2016/mar/29/deadpool-becomes-highest-grossing-r-rated-film-of-all-time-ryan-reynolds
  6. 20th Century Fox. (2016, Jan 21). Deadpool | Rootin’ For Deadpool | 20th Century FOX. Video File. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vVj8Pm9JRjI.
  7. SR Trailers and Interviews. (2016, Feb 7). Deadpool Movie Super Bowl Commercial. Video File. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VF0cxh7a55Y.
  8. 20th Century Fox. (2016, May 5). Need a little hand? Try Deadpool. #Deadpole | 20th Century FOX . Video File. Retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=isZYRbKP8uU
  9. Metro.co.uk, M. M. (2015). Hungry bear eats wildlife camera. Retrieved from http://metro.co.uk/2013/05/18/brad-josephs-grizzly-tries-to-eat-gopro-camera-in-great-bear-stakeout-bbc-video-3795833/
  10. The Content Strategist. (2014). Serendipity! 5 Brands That Scored an Accidental Viral Hit. Retrieved from https://contently.com/strategist/2014/06/26/serendipity-5-brands-that-scored-an-accidental-viral-hit/
  11. Neistat, C. [CaseyNeistat]. (2011, June 7). Bike Lanes by Casey Neistat. [Video File]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bzE-IMaegzQ.
  12. Lapinski, V. (2011, December 7). Top 10 Creative Videos. Time. Retrieved from http://content.time.com/time/specials/packages/article/0,28804,2101344_2100632_2100633,00.html.
  13. Carroll, Dave. (2008). United Breaks Guitars. Retrieved from http://www.davecarrollmusic.com/songwriting/united-breaks-guitars/
  14. UPI (2009, July 9). Singer's revenge on United: A hit song. Retrieved from http://www.upi.com/Odd_News/2009/07/09/Singers-revenge-on-United-A-hit-song/UPI-79301247160917/
  15. Keane, M. (1970). Millward Brown: Only 15% of ads go viral online. Retrieved from https://econsultancy.com/blog/5620-millward-brown-only-15-of-ads-go-viral-online/
  16. Wu, Roger. (2014, January 3). Will You Go Viral? Here's A Way To Predict. Retrieved from http://www.forbes.com/sites/groupthink/2014/01/03/will-you-go-viral-heres-a-way-to-predict/#5936d69d21e1
  17. Agrawal, AJ. (2016, March 11). 'Go Viral' Is Not A Smart Marketing Strategy. Retrieved from http://www.forbes.com/sites/ajagrawal/2016/03/11/go-viral-is-not-a-smart-marketing-strategy/#7a26569975bd
  18. Skene, Kiley. (2014, April 4). A PR Case Study: Wal-Marting Across America. Retrieved from http://www.newsgeneration.com/2014/04/04/pr-case-study-walmarting-across-america/
  19. CNN Money. (2006, October 20). PR firm admits it's behind Wal-Mart blogs. Retrieved from http://money.cnn.com/2006/10/20/news/companies/walmart_blogs/
  20. Siebert, Tom. (2006, October 17). Edelman Apologizes For Wal-Mart 'Flog'. Retrieved from http://www.mediapost.com/publications/article/49698/edelman-apologizes-for-wal-mart-flog.html?edition=