Sub-Viral Marketing

In early 2004, sneaker maker Puma got a huge boost in buzz. Hipsters, fashionistas and Internet junkies set the message boards ablaze and servers humming by distributing and downloading the greatest print ad Puma had ever conceived. The purveyors of über-cool eagerly began to pump up Puma’s street-cred by referencing the image as a groundbreaking and brilliant leap in display ad creative. It was provocative, daring, unambiguously sexual – even dirty. Certainly dirty.

Without inadvertently floating into the pornographic, I’ll try to explain the ad obliquely: a woman in Puma sneakers is shown kneeling on the ground and, um, servicing a guy in Puma sneakers. The picture is cut off at the woman’s shoulders, for a smattering of ambiguity. Oh yeah, there’s a Puma bag in there somewhere, corner logo placement and an unmentionable coup de grace too, but I won’t go into it. Soon after the release or the images, Internet chatter on blogs and word-of-mouth buzz in most urban circles of pop culture dilettantism were awash in Puma pandemonium. 030415_pumaad

Because the ad pushed the boundaries of mainstream thinking and broke social taboos – certainly exhibiting an ethos that is warmly embraced by the youth-dominated counter-culture and underground scenes – it was an instant success. Not surprisingly, the "alternative" crowd already marched in Puma sneakers. The resonance and relevance of the image — actually two separate images in exactly the same pose — was obvious.

But there was a problem: Puma never commissioned the ad. In fact, as soon as buzz reached critical mass, they declared the ads a fake and blitzed out cease-and-desist orders to various bloggers and sites, dangling legal action above anyone posting the "defamatory image." The corporate’s heavy-handed tactics started another round of blog buzz just as quickly as the ads themselves. This time, however, the buzz was less than favourable.

But what if you subscribe to the notion that even bad press is good press? Many cyber-pundits like, and began to insinuate that Puma had sneaked in a buzz marketing double-dip through a remarkable online viral strategy: surreptitiously releasing the ad itself, then vehemently denying it had done so. Puma’s counsel said in a statement: "Please be advised that such offensive image was created without our knowledge or consent." Welcome to the wacky world of "sub-viral marketing."

Sub-viral marketing hinges on subversive parody of well-known brands that is distributed as either picture or video e-mail — usually with a "fwd:" tag in your Inbox — and is based on the theory that satirizing a brand effectively triggers its mnemonic recognition in the consumer’s subconscious. Sub-viral content has to look amateurish, feel subversive, usually display risqué content and be totally deniable as corporate intrusion. Since sub-viral marketing won’t really work if the companies fess up to releasing the parodies, the best sub-viral campaigns are indistinguishable from genuinely amateur Internet parodies.

According to London’s The Guardian newspaper, sub-viral marketing is the latest trend increasingly being employed by brand behemoths such as Budweiser, Levi’s and MasterCard. I should admit that 20% of my daily e-mail output involves forwarding off Internet detritus to peers across the world. Of course, I need to first filter out all the mundane, moronic and puerile gaga that inexorably finds its way into the Inbox – about 99.99% of all bit packets coursing through the pipelines. But a good and engaging fwd: will get my attention, and subsequently the attention of my peers, perhaps enough so to spark a potential tipping point.

Sub-viral marketing hopes to capitalize on that creative spark, and whereas a buzz-worthy amateur parody comes across once in a blue moon, a brand parody developed in top creative shops around the world has immediate impact in cyberspace. And therein lies the temptation for major mass marketers to embrace self-mocking machinations.

Since the Puma photo hit the scene, dozens of Internet brand parodies have been put under the microscope by cyber-pundits. There’s the Nokia short video that shows a ceiling fan flinging a cat across the room. There’s a Levi’s spoof called "Rub Yourself" which reveals an onanistic teenager doing exactly what the title purports. There’s the infamous MasterCard "Priceless" parody about a drunken teen couple and the guy’s less-than-successful attempts for a happy ending on the girl’s front porch. And who can forget Budweiser’s "Wassup" parodies that inundated Western society’s Outlook a few years ago? These are now suspected of being prototypical sub-viral campaigns that tipped over into mass phenomena, with wide debate as to whether the clips are amateur subversive genius or ad agency brilliance.

Ultimately the debate is inconsequential because it’s ephemeral, as most things on the Internet are. But from a marketer’s perspective, lessons learned from sub-viral marketing are not inconsequential in the least. As a report by New York-based marketing and branding firm Harvest Communications attests, "whether they are negative or positive, brand parodies offer companies invaluable consumer insight that is not forced out of a focus group, but homegrown and authentic. They offer us clues about what resonates with customers, what concerns them and [are] possible early indicators of public opinion."

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