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unintended viral marketing-a cautionary tale

Viral Marketing

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by Kenneth Rudich

Please be forewarned from the outset that this post contains some sensitive subject matter.  It has material I would not ordinarily choose to write about except I came across a CNN News Report that struck me as relevant, given that I’d published a blog post titled “Going Viral from A to Z” a few days earlier.

In that blog post, I introduced two fictional characters named “A-Viral the Good” and his evil twin “Z-viral the bad.”  It noted that going viral can be a double-edged sword.  It depends on who you feed, and what you feed him.  After that, it can go anywhere from A to Z.
 
The point I was trying to make is that you can’t really control or predict viral marketing, certainly not like you can other forms of marketing.  At any time, it can take a life of its own and become an entity unto itself.  When that happens, mostly all you can do is sit back and watch.  And if it goes wrong for you, it can go terribly wrong.

the story

The story I’m about to discuss is a cautionary tale because of its strange twist.  Actually, it has a few strange twists and an outcome that was unwittingly produced in the wake of trying to raise people’s consciousness about a socially sensitive subject.

It begins with an interactive, animated computer game produced in Japan.  The game players are invited to engage in the sordid business of sexually violating a teenage girl on a subway.  It is graphic, violent, and openly vindictive toward women.  And it was placed in the market for sale.
 
None too surprisingly, the game ignited international outrage among women’s groups.  They wanted it pulled off store shelves worldwide, and they wanted to call attention to how socially inappropriate it was.  They launched a marketing campaign with those objectives in mind.
 
And that’s when irony struck.

the irony

While the campaign did in fact succeed at smothering sales, this does not necessarily mean that it achieved its true goal.
 
You see, in the quest to create widespread awareness of the game being too controversial to be in the market, it also created widespread awareness of — and morbid curiosity about — the game.  The next thing anyone new, the game went viral and was being downloaded from the internet, often for free.
 
As for the women behind the campaign, all they could do is sit back and watch in dismay as sales plunged but circulation soared.  

a teachable moment for marketers

In my post with the fictional character Z-viral the bad, he is described as bent on inflicting his sinister intent whenever and wherever he can.  All he needs is the slightest exploitable weakness and he’ll pounce like a cougar on prey.

I would venture to say the exploitable weakness of the women’s campaign was in underestimating the human trait of morbid curiosity and the role it can play.  It’s the same kind of curiosity that prompts people to rubberneck when driving past a car accident.  In a situation like this, with a wildly lurid aspect involved, it merits asking what could potentially happen with interest and action once awareness is created.

So in fact the campaign to raise awareness did raise awareness…but it did it for both.  And, in the process, it unwittingly, inadvertently, never wanting to, helped the computer game to go viral.

What do you think?  Is this a teachable moment for those of us in marketing?  Like maybe, beware circumstances in which you must also consider the prospect of unintended viral marketing?

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    Hi Rain:

    Oregon State University has a “Powered by Orange” social media campaign that has been picking up the kind steam needed to go viral. If you search those key words, I’m sure you’ll find content about it.

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