Current Thinking: Instant Zeitgeist

  • by June 24, 2005
By Ian Schaefer

Did you see that Paris Hilton commercial for Carl's Jr. ( I did. How could I avoid it? A picture from the ad was e-mailed to me by five different friends (four male, one female).

Using the sight of Paris Hilton washing a car in her bathing suit to sell hamburgers, the ad is the latest attempt at taking what is currently "hot" (please excuse the pun), and doing what I call "zeitgeisting it." That means taking something that appeals to the largest cross section of the hippest audience at a given point in time, and putting it up on a Web page for audiences to digest and circulate to their closest friends.

Carl's Jr.'s Web site was supposedly knocked offline due to the popularity of this uncut TV spot. But most importantly, what was the true audience reaction? Was any publicity good publicity? Was this really "cool," or just a passing fancy?

Consumers can see through the veil of an ad that just tries too hard to be viral - and the result may be the opposite of what marketers want to do.

There are only two ways to maximize your chances of developing a truly "viral" campaign: Either minimize the brand, or open it up for audience interaction. Apple's recent ads for the iPod are a great example of being subtle (or iconic) with the brand, and heavy on what is already "hip" and "cool" - music and dancing. Lucasfilm embraced the "Star Wars" fan community by letting it run free with the brand in the Star Wars Fan Film Awards (judged by Lucas himself). The community gives the film a street credibility that only helped to increase the excitement about "Episode III."

We all face challenges when working with brands. Historically, corporations have been very protective, setting numerous rules about when, where, why, and how brands can be used in various contexts. But that was before the Internet. That was before content could be captured, altered, published, and consumed within 24 hours on a massive, viral scale.

Given this kind of distribution scenario, instead of sitting around a conference table thinking about how a brand could be made viral by how risqué it can become, more effort should be placed on how to develop a brand into something that is already popular - or will be. If you really want to take a chance, don't taunt the Federal Communications Commission - let your customers do it for you. Consumer-generated content is the purest form of viral content. Best of all, it will greatly increase the amount of time consumers spend with the brand.

Ironically, the only way to capture what is truly "cool" is to let audiences do it for you.

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