Bird Flu Viral Marketing: Cluck, Cluck, Goose

If you are reading this, I know you've seen it. Industry wonks, digerati gadflies, and ad geeks alike have had something to say about it.

Tom Hespos in his column on Tuesday addressed the online viral marketing phenomenon du jour. It is the Subservient Chicken (

If you don't already know what this is, I suggest you take a look behind the URL herein or read Tom's article from earlier in the week.

What the Subservient Chicken is, is an example of one more attempt-in a rising tide of attempts-at trying to force authentic engagement of a product or brand through an inauthentic, artificial construct. What I mean by this is that the Subservient Chicken is the latest attempt by marketers to impose virality on their marketing.

Crispin Porter + Bogusky created the "ad"-though I find that label inadequate-in the hopes of starting the latest branded viral chin-wagging.

And it has happened. The industry can't stop talking to itself about it. We have seen this in the past, of course; marketing opportunities propelled by "word of mouse," buzz getting louder and louder as more and more people clicked "Send" on the email with the attached file or the URL that promised to transmit wonder, humor, or awe.



Remember the Mahir Cagri "I kiss you!!" craze that ran rampant during late 1999 and the first half of 2000? The guy was on all manner of talk shows, and his site is in the 2001 Guinness Book of World Records for the most visits to a personal homepage, with an estimated 12 million hits. To capitalize on this "viral" phenomenon, eTour joined forces with Mahir, sponsoring a U.S. Tour. At WebAttack 2000 at the Roseland in Manhattan, Jim Lanzone, Vice President, Marketing, of eTour came out to give a speech wearing red Speedos, a la Mahir, to discuss the power of viral marketing.

Then there was the Superfriends email, with Batman, Robin, Superman, and Aquaman saying "Wazz Up?!," to one another.

We had the BMW Films series about which there was much talk within the advertising community.

Lately there's been other "spread the word" campaigns by Suburban (the Trunk Monkey, which is, sadly, been taken down) and Ford's European division (for the Sportka).

Now we have the Subservient Chicken.

I have to say, I'm sort of disturbed by the environment that the man in the chicken suit is in. I mean, the decor is something I would expect to find in Jeffrey Dahmer's apartment; or-no pun intended-a chicken hawker's film studio. Kind of makes my skin crawl.

But when it comes to marketers inducing virality, the question we all must ask ourselves, as persons working in advertising, is this:

Will this sell more product? Will those who already buy the product continue to do so?

If the answers to both these questions are 'no,' then this project fails.

Viral marketing has always been a pebble in my shoe because over the last few years it crops up once a planning season as a way for marketers to spread their word on the cheap by faking authenticity (talk about an oxymoron...).

What no one ever seems to understand is that just generating buzz is never enough. And viral marketing, like viruses themselves, work in indeterminate and fractal ways. I don't mean to get a virus and I don't mean to give it, but it takes on a life of its own and transfers from person to person, all the while transmuting from its original form, indifferent to human intent.

If all that is accomplished with an ad campaign is that people talk about it, that by itself isn't worth the money spent on cause.

The last 20 years of the ascent of creative in advertising over all other considerations has blinded even the most astute advertising professionals to the fact that, when the Chihuahua is done barking and the chicken man is done creeping us out, if you don't eventually sell more product, the effort is a failure.

I say this every couple of months, but, since few listen, I'll say it again: we need to read our Ogilvy and remember that the basics of advertising are to always, ultimately, now or later, sell product. If it does not do that, then advertising goes from being an investment to being an expense.

Ogilvy writes at the very beginning of his book, Ogilvy On Advertising,

"When I write an advertisement, I don't want you to tell me that you find it 'creative.' I want you to find it so interesting that you buy the product. When Aeschines spoke, they said, 'How well he speaks.' But when Demosthenes spoke, they said, 'Let us march against Philip.'"

Maybe this latest strain of the bird flu virus will infect us into action; it is too soon to tell. Early measures of success are being based on traffic to the web site where the Subservient Chicken can be found. But if you're still looking at site traffic as a determinate of success, I've got some eToys stock and old PC Meter reports to sell you.

A formula of dollars spent to get people to talk, plus those people not buying enough of your product to recoup the costs of what it takes to get those people to talk equals bankruptcy.

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