The typical 30-second Super Bowl ad should be the perfect Internet meme, capable of going viral quickly and infecting large swaths of Internet users with its marketing message. After all, advertisers are paying millions of dollars, hiring the best creatives in the industry, bringing celebrity talent aboard, and giving social media sites seemingly everything needed to go viral on the Web. And, yet, only a handful of the ads on deck for this Sunday's Super Bowl will ever make it into the national watercooler conversation on Monday morning. And even some of those that do — such as the "racist" VW ad and the "sexist" Kate Upton Mercedes-Benz ad may do so for the wrong reasons.
So why is it so hard to go viral on the Internet?
As a society, we are becoming inoculated to the rampant viral and meme culture of the Internet, in the same way that we’ve become inoculated to other forms of advertising. In short, with the huge growth of social media and the sharing culture of the Web, we’ve become so obsessed with creating the viral — through YouTube videos, animated GIFs and trending topic tweets — that we’ve effectively vaccinated ourselves against anything weakly viral. Just as our bodies develop anti-bodies to combat viruses in the real world, so too, can our minds develop anti-bodies to the memes in the virtual world.
On a daily basis, we are barraged with a constant stream of content that wants to go viral — cute cat videos, cute baby videos and famous people doing ridiculous things are just the most obvious examples. It’s to the point where the 30-second Super Bowl ads are no longer “the best talking baby video of the year,” they are “the best talking baby video of the past 30 minutes.”
Another reason may be that Super Bowl advertisers are going about it all wrong. Flush with huge marketing budgets, they are turning their 30-second advertisements into 30-second entertainment clips, with potentially negative consequences for getting consumers to actually buy their products. A new Harvard Business School study from Thales S. Teixeira shows that there’s a careful balance that advertisers need to take between the entertainment value of an ad and the actual marketing message. In other words, even something that seems to be a surefire hit on paper — "Gangnam Style" viral superstar Psy pitching pistachio nuts — may fail to entice viewers if the details about the product are not persuasive enough. An ad needs to be entertaining to get you to watch, but it also needs to have informational content that convinces you to share it with others.
Nothing better illustrates this cautious mix of entertainment value and informational content better than this week’s viral sensation: the 9-year-old, suit-and-tie-wearing Kid President giving a "Pep Talk" to the nation. Yes, the video has slick production value, but there’s a core message in there for people watching: “Doing nothing is boring. Go out there and be awesome.” What Kid President tapped into — more so than any of the Super Bowl viral wannabes created with huge budgets — is the sense that something has stalled in this country. And it took a nine-year-old to make it clear for us with a “Pep Talk.”
And, best of all, Kid President is not just another viral meme that we’ve seen before — our minds simply don’t have the antibodies to resist sharing this meme with others. In just a handful of days, the Kid President "Pep Talk" video has picked up over 4 million views in just six days and the 9-year-old star has even been invited to appear on the “Today” show.
What this year's Super Bowl advertisers need is the advertising equivalent of the new norovirus in order to infect the Internet. The "Ferrari of viruses" does not appear to be particularly dangerous, nor even particularly strong — but it is capable of rapidly mutating and spreading very quickly. Precisely because our bodies have never seen this strain of the norovirus before, we’re helpless against its attacks. There are no known vaccines against the norovirus and people who succumb to it can’t stop thinking about it for a few days. Which, by the way, is exactly what Super Bowl advertisers hope will happen with all of their car, beer, and chip ads.
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