The secret of ad energy

Last Updated: Sun, Feb 12, 2012 07:18 hrs

There was a time, sometime in December, when it was impossible to walk down the street in an Indian metropolis without hearing a snatch from 'Kolaveri'. The song, recorded by a group of Tamil actors and singers, has now been watched over 42 million times on the internet website YouTube; Sony Music, which owns the copyright, has seen a comparable number of downloads. Its amateurish, relaxed feel served to enhance its popularity.

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The group's leader, the actor-singer Dhanush - born Venkatesh Prabhu Kasthuri Raja - pointed out in the course of a seminar on viral marketing at the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad last week, that the film with which it is associated - 3 - received an enormous amount of publicity as a result. The film will now be released not just in Tamil, but also in Telugu and Hindi; and instead of just 400 prints, as originally planned, over 1,000 will be screened. When viral marketing works, it works spectacularly.

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But last week also saw a cautionary sequel. GlaxoSmithKline's health drink Boost attempted to replicate the success of 'Kolaveri' by getting Mr Raja to record a tribute to the cricketer Sachin Tendulkar, who has been associated with the drink since the "Boost is the secret of my energy" advertisement twenty-odd years ago. The clip for the new song has not been a failure, exactly. There have already been 1.4 million views on YouTube. It, however, appears to have less of the spontaneous originality that allowed the original to catch on so widely. Nor is it tied closely enough to the idea of the product it is trying to sell. It seems unlikely that even a tiny fraction of the 1.4 million viewers will recall the references to the health drink scattered across the video, let alone feel an uncontrollable desire to go out and buy some. Viral marketing, clearly, can fail as solidly as it can succeed.

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Viral marketing is a product, essentially, of the replication-friendly digital age, in which online social networks can magnify hundredfold, and speed up thousandfold, the word-of-mouth effects which pre-digital marketers tried to create. Hundreds of videos, images and taglines "go viral" every year. Only a fraction of those are advertisements or product tie-ins, and it continues to be difficult to predict which will have that success, or if they will help the brands that paid for their development. In India, in particular, there have been few examples of successful viral campaigns. Some made-for-TV advertisements, like those from Ogilvy and Mather for Vodafone featuring pseudo-animated creatures called ZooZoos, took on a life of their own online. Others, like Virgin Telecom's "Indian Panga League" series, in which ethnic stereotypes yelled at each other on the phone, created a buzz online first. The latter both tapped into an Indian fascination with ethnic divisions and diversity, and clearly linked them to current events (the IPL) and the product being sold (STD calls). All those feverishly trying to create 'Kolaveri'-style magic for their brands would do well to examine other failures, and other successes. The whole point of going viral is that it is very difficult to orchestrate a decentralised, bubbling-over enthusiasm.

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