Most irritating things in media No. 6: ‘Viral’

According to Campaign’s viral video chart, the new British Heart Foundation 'Staying Alive' ad, demonstrating how to do ‘hard and fast’’ CPR, was the most shared  ad last week, seen 53,000 across Facebook, YouTube and the rest of the web.  Hurray for that; the more people who see it the better.   I am a prime candidate for having a heart attack, particularly if I keep getting annoyed at the way 'viral' is being used.    It's also a wonderful ad from Grey London, who has used scary actors to deliver life-saving advice before (Vinnie Jones this time, Steven Berkoff in the past). 

We urge TV advertisers ourselves to upload a quality version of their TV ad onto YouTube etc. before their TV campaign starts so they are prepared for the creative dividend they might earn; we were delighted that our own Harvey ad was watched nearly 2 million times on YouTube and Facebook.   It is significant when people choose to find and share your ad and it’s a meaningful measure of likeability, a quality that the IPA and others tell us is the best predictor of success.

So, why the irritation?  Well, I had hoped that the word ‘viral’, used the way marketers tend to (as a noun rather than the adjective it actually is), had gone. Lord knows I’m not the first to be irritated by it or to point out its flaws but I was hearing it used less and hoped a cure had been found. But no; it seems to be a virus that is very hard to kill.

It’s presumptuous to call something a ‘viral’.  You can't make a 'viral'; all you can do is make a cracking film and then hope it is liked enough to get distributed virally.   Those very rare films that go viral can achieve millions of viewers globally given enough time,   History of Dance being one of the originals and T-Mobile’s Royal Wedding the most recent commercial example.  But the vast majority earn a few thousand views, many of which originate internally or from their agency roster.  

So it’s irresponsible to promote 'virals' as a substitute for paid advertising instead of what they really are, which is a delightful by-product, the best example of 'earned' media.  The biggest 'virals' usually have great creative but they also often have substantial media spend to get their particular balls rolling. 

We also find that marketers and creative agencies often have a rather shaky grip on the comparable numbers of viral campaigns vs. paid for media for either reach or cost, through no fault of their own.    The jargon that is rife in media planning means advertisers are rarely told their TV ad will be viewed 260 million times in a standard TV campaign; instead we describe it as 400 TVRs or 80% reach with frequency of 5 which sounds puny compared to 53,000.  The other partial culprit is the internet world's addiction to ‘numberwanging’ i.e. quoting the highest possible number without qualification or context.

The 53,000 viral views that the BHF received in their first week, were just about matched by the very first TV spot that they bought: Sky News at 6.30am.  It costs about £350 to get your ad seen 53,000 views on broadcast TV.  I’m prepared to accept that ‘shares’ are more valuable than ‘views’ but even if 10 times as valuable that means the most viral ad of the week earned about £3500 of media value.  I wonder what it cost to get them that, because that is the other myth about ‘virals’ - that they’re free.    How much pushing and placing and seeding went on at what cost and effort?  And if ‘shares’ are worth 10 times a view, what value does the broadcast ‘view’  have that begets the chain of ‘shares’?  

Last year at the British Arrows awards ceremony I could have wept at all the brilliant pieces of film that hardly anyone in the room had ever seen, because those advertisers had been persuaded they should make a ‘viral’.

Of course, the BHF didn’t rely on viral distribution; its first peak time TV spot was seen 5 million times and in its first 3 days on air it was seen 73 million times.  A lot of people will owe their lives to that wise investment.

  • Tess Alps
    Tess Alps
    Chair, Thinkbox
  • Posted under
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