Why TV Ads Don't Go Viral

Adweek recently ran an article titled Why So Few TV Ads Are Viral Hits. According to the article:

The Holy Grail for many marketers is having their big-budget TV spot become a viral hit online, providing millions of dollars worth of free exposure from consumer pass-along.”

Market research firm Millward Brown (MB) found, however, that just 15% of the 102 TV ads they studied became viral hits, and concluded that:

Even those spots that do achieve viral success don’t necessarily mean consumers get the intended commercial message.”

I can’t imagine that you’ll be surprised to learn that MB is now offering a “creative viral potential measurement” service as part of the copy-testing process. The firm has “crafted 10 tips for making a TV spot viral,  including great creativity, wide dissemination, good search optimization and, perhaps most important, the need to ‘cross your fingers’.”

To summarize: 1) Few spots go viral; 2) Going viral is no guarantee of success; but 3) MB will still charge you money to help you determine if your spot has (oh let’s just call it) viralocity.

Adweek misnamed the article — it never says why so few TV ads go viral. I’ve got a few theories, though. Few TV ads go viral because so many of them:

1. Suck. On second thought, while it might be true that many ads suck, it’s actually not the reason they don’t go viral. After all, that “Charlie Bit My Finger” video went viral, and it sucked.

2. Don’t connect emotionally and authentically. There are two common threads to ads and videos that go viral: First of all, they connect with people on an emotional level. That emotion could be humor, sympathy, nostalgia, whatever, I don’t know.  But while many TV ads try to evoke emotion, emotion isn’t enough. The second common element is authenticity. Viral ads and videos don’t try to go viral. The ones that do tend to have a quirky appeal to them. Agency-done ads don’t have that quality.

3. Aren’t supposed to go viral. This might be hard logic for advertisers to follow, but readers of this blog will have no trouble getting it: Many ads are designed to accomplish specific business objectives, which results in them being written in a way that doesn’t lend itself to becoming a viral ad. In other words, by not going viral they actually have a better chance of accomplishing their business goals.

This whole topic of viral TV ads is ridiculous. The “millions of dollars of free exposure” you’d get is only helpful if you reduced your ad budget by millions of dollars. But that’s not going to happen, is it?

And how fleeting are these viral videos, anyway? Can you remember the hot video from three months ago? (OK, granted, I remembered Charlie Bit My Finger, but mostly because I thought it was so stupid).

And is this so-called extra exposure really that valuable? While direct marketers measure their effectiveness by calculating incremental sales, advertisers count exposure, even if the same 10 million people see their ads over and over again.

And what’s with this “cross your fingers” business? The fact that MB is going to “evaluate” ads’ viralocity pretty much guarantees that ads won’t become viral, since that will pretty much kill any hope of authenticity.

So why all the interest and focus on viralocity among the advertising community? The answer can be summed up in one word: Ego. It isn’t about driving business results, it’s about creating bragging rights.

Is it any wonder I harbor a disrespect for the advertising industry?

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2 thoughts on “Why TV Ads Don't Go Viral

  1. 15% went viral? What a load… Try more like 0.01%. I can’t listen to a researcher whose study is so obviously flawed.

    The trick to making a viral TV spot is making one that’s really, really funny. That is also the same approach that wins ad agencies lots of awards.

    It’s no surprise who ad agencies usually make spots for: themselves.

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