Viral ads that smell as good as this guy

Humour has become the most powerful marketing tool in social media. How to do it right is debatable.

Someone you know — your spouse, co-worker, mom — has likely e-mailed you a supposedly funny online advertising campaign with a note saying, “Hey, take a look at this.” People like to repeat good jokes. Consider Old Spice’s “The Man Your Man Could Smell Like” campaign. Released online in February, the 30-second spot features a handsome, towel-clad man addressing his female viewers. “Hello ladies,” he says. “Look at your man. Now back to me. … Sadly, he isn’t me. But if he stopped using lady-scented body wash and switched to Old Spice, he could smell like he’s me.”

This sly clip has been watched more than 7.8 million times online, thanks in large part to smitten viewers sharing it with their friends, spreading Old Spice’s brand message in the process. In the ever-expanding world of social media, humour is proving perhaps the most powerful tool for cutting through the Internet clutter. “Everybody on the web has the ability to quickly and easily share content with others,” Dennis Hurley, a creative strategist with Tribal DDB, a digital marketing agency, wrote in a recent company discussion paper. “Humour puts your brand in the best position to benefit from that connectivity. If you make your users laugh, your relationship with them will benefit and they will probably pass your creative on to friends.”

Of course, humour in advertising has always offered an incentive — a bit of pleasure in exchange for the audience’s precious time. But with social media, it provides an additional payoff — by giving audiences funny material to forward and, in some cases, manipulate, they get to be funny by association. “The consumer who passes it along gets to share the creative halo,” says Ed Lee, the Toronto-based director of social media for DDB Canada.

With a good comic hook, not only can you instantly enliven a brand’s image, you can earn consumers’ forgiveness for intruding on their little personal piece of the Internet, beit their Facebook page or Twitter feed. When it’s executed well, like the Old Spice campaign, “you can’t get that kind of viewership on TV in one place for your target market,” says Terry O’Reilly, co-author of The Age of Persuasion.

The difficulty is, the special alchemy that makes some campaigns funny and others duds is hard to define. A recent survey by Millward Brown, a research agency, found only one in six online ads was viewed more than 5,000 times a week in the U.S.

Advertisers’ comedic online offerings currently range from the sophomoric (Axe body wash produced a double-entendre laden faux infomercial called “Clean Your Balls”) to the surreal (an online campaign for Norton security software used Dokken, a heavy metal band, to represent a computer virus, and a switchblade-wielding chicken to represent a Norton-protected hard drive). Some Internet campaigns are extensions of advertisements from other media. PlayStation’s fictional “Vice-president of Everything,” for example, who answers questions in the company’s TV ads, also has his own Twitter feed. “I’m sure the devil’s not a great guy or anything but naming something as gross as deviled eggs after him still ain’t right,” reads one post.

Other advertisers have built elaborate campaigns solely for the Internet. Volkswagen produced an online video where they transformed a subway staircase into a giant piano and then secretly filmed commuter’s reactions. A second clip featured a garbage can that produced sound effects when it was fed. Both directed viewers to a website promoting the company’s new environmental features.

Wry, whimsical humour has been central to the Volkswagen brand for generations. Indeed, Doyle Dane Bernbach, the ad firm that evolved into DDB, produced a series of legendary ads for the car company more than 50 years ago that introduced humour to the previouslystodgy advertising industry. But experts warn that brands cannot rely on comedy to sell themselves online. Motrin was soundly rebuked two years ago after producing an online ad noting that while wearing a baby sling makes mothers look “more official,” it can also cause neck and back pain. New mothers felt the campaign was laughing at them, not with them, and they let the company know. “You have to be really careful with humour. There are way more pitfalls than with some other approaches,” says Lee. “You need to find a relevant voice for the brand.”

And even if an advertiser finds the right comedic voice, it will not automatically translate into a viral success. “You can’t control that,” says O’Reilly. “You put it out there and you hope that it gets picked up virally. That’s every marketer’s wish.”