Close-Up: Live Issue - Why the bad-taste viral is not always good for brand image

Controversial viral ads can raise laughs but also harm brands.

There's nothing like a bit of celebrity swearing or mock animal cruelty in a viral ad to get pulses racing and send viewing figures soaring into the stratosphere. And it seems the more controversial the clip, the greater our compulsion to hit the "forward" button and redistribute the gag.

In an increasingly regulated industry where advertising has to be honest, decent and true, and what is deemed appropriate for mainstream audiences is at the mercy of industry watchdogs, more and more advertisers are embracing the medium of the viral as a means of airing deliciously daring images.

Ford, in particular, already has a history of pushing the boat out with its viral offerings in recent years. Last week, the car manufacturer hit the headlines again thanks to a "leaked", unapproved clip for the SportKa, which shows a cat having its head cut off by the sunroof before its body slides down the bonnet.

Ogilvy & Mather, the ad's creators, also recently unveiled a spot for the Ka's "evil twin" that has the hood of the car flick open and hit a pigeon for six when it attempts to land on the bonnet; animal rights groups were up in arms.

Depending on your feline sympathies, the headless cat execution may have backfired on Ford and its bid to position the SportKa as the "bad boy" of cars. But, if done in the right way, a viral can be a popular alternative that serves to both thrill and shock, while adding further cool credentials to a product.

John Owen, the planning director for Dare Digital, says: "Brand advertising is about proving something is entertainment that people will talk about. You need to be careful that the content sits comfortably with the brand and people won't be too surprised.

"If you get it right, a viral campaign can add the 'X' ingredient. Ideally, it should be something that has a twist in the tail and makes people laugh. But to the same extent, getting it wrong can have a harmful effect on the brand."

The German sports giant Puma knows this better than most after it was called to explain away a sexually suggestive campaign that had been posted on the internet.

Although rumours circulated that the ads were real, the manufacturer claimed that they were fake and had been released without its consent.

Legal steps were taken, but in terms of building its brand, Puma took two steps forward and three steps back, thanks more to its over-reaction to the spoof than anything else.

But a well-done viral can cut through in creative terms, as proved by the viral for Trojan Condoms, which features a sportsman using his manhood to hold a woman aloft for three seconds. The elaborate campaign showing the "Trojan Games" won gold at BTAA this year.

One great example of how viral can be used to deliver a well-crafted, yet mildly controversial, execution is DDB London's spot for Volkswagen. The clip shows a little girl saying the word "bollocks" when things go wrong during her day. It would have made a nice TV ad but for the client's understandable sensitivity over showing a child using swear words.

And you must have seen the ad that was slipped out by Channel 4, featuring the stars of its programmes saying their favourite swear words. Or "swinging cat" for Nokia, where a group of lads film a cat getting caught up swiping at a string hanging from a ceiling fan.

Where they originate from, no- one is entirely sure. The culprits remain at large. But we happily send them on to friends, thus boosting the brand's image with a personal endorsement.

Matt Smith, the managing director of The Viral Factory, believes making virals that court controversy is a phase advertisers will eventually tire of.

He says: "At the moment, people perceive virals as an ad with swearing, or an ad that is smutty. And they are generally the sort that are being made at the moment, because that is where the demand is.

"But being slightly edgy in a viral is not something that is going to go on for ever and ever. Other uses will be found for them."

Currently, there seem to be very few boundaries as far as viral marketing is concerned.

The medium does not fall within the Advertising Standards Authority's remit, largely due to its use of "pull" tactics. That is, where consumers visit a website and download information, which they then pass on to friends voluntarily.

Although in instances where advertisers initially "push" viral e-mails to a target group of consumers, the ASA will get involved if a complaint is later lodged. To date there has never been a formal investigation.

A spokeswoman for the ASA says: "One reason for this lack of complaints is because the advertising industry's code of practice requires advertisers to have consent from consumers before targeting them by e-mail or SMS.

"So the initial group of people sent a viral e-mail by the advertisers will all have agreed to be sent e-mails and are less likely to complain about receiving them."

But the idea of the web and its derivatives being a lawless Wild West for advertisers could soon be a thing of the past.

As of December 2003, explicit consent is required from individuals where their e-mail address is used for a purpose they were not informed about, while organisations such as the Internet Watch Foundation keep an eye on sites.

But for the time being clients can use viral marketing to freely express controversial creative ideas. And long may it continue.

CONTROVERSY-COURTING VIRAL ADS

CLIENT AGENCY DESCRIPTION

Ford Ka Ogilvy & Mather Evil SportKa decapitates a

ginger cat

Carter Products The Viral Factory Olympic events are translated

into sexual competitions in this

ad for Trojan Condoms

Volkswagen DDB London Little girl utters the word

"bollocks"a lot

Nokia n/a Lads film cat getting caught

up in a ceiling fan

Xbox BBH The 51-second clip follows a

person's life from birth to the

grave

Channel 4 4 Creative Celebrities reveal their favourite

swear word

Ikea Leagas Delaney Shows a child playing with toys,

including a vibrator, to promote

the brand's storage products

MTV The Viral Factory Home-style video depicts a child

opening a Christmas present and

then destroying Granny with a

light sabre

Puma n/a Couples perform sexual acts

Ford Ka Ogilvy & Mather Car kills pigeon

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1 Job description: Digital marketing executive

Digital marketing executives oversee the online marketing strategy for their organisation. They plan and execute digital (including email) marketing campaigns and design, maintain and supply content for the organisation's website(s).