With consumers bombarded by more than a thousand commercial messages every day, it's little wonder that pessimists believe we're becoming a nation of cynical ad avoiders. Little wonder, too, that marketers are looking for new ways to cut through the clutter and build closer relationships with consumers.
Now there's a fashionable new weapon in the marketing armoury that seeks to combat advertising fatigue by finding a new route to consumers' hearts and pockets. It's a weapon designed to use the very people who are being sold and it's catching.
The growth of viral marketing - whereby consumers themselves play a key role in spreading the commercial message - has been fuelled by the growth of new media. The arrival of the internet and e-mail has provided the perfect medium for word-of-mouth marketing. Except now it is being called word of mouse.
The principle behind it is simple: make your electronic commercial message so interesting or funny that people, upon receiving the e-mail, will immediately forward it to all their friends saying 'look at this'. The e-mail then spreads exponentially, exactly like a virus.
'The psychology behind viral marketing is passing on information that nobody has, so you mentally feel one above them,' says Robert Campbell, the managing director of the production company Outsider, which is a partner in the Eatmail5000 viral marketing company. 'Viral is something that spreads very fast and multiplies at an enormous rate. Hence the term.'
Yet viral marketing isn't just confined to new media. Before e-mail marketing kicked off, marketers were exploring subtler ways of spreading their message, such as product placement or 'leader seeding' - planting the commercial message with opinion-formers who will influence other consumers.
'There's nothing dramatically new about viral marketing except that somebody has found a neat name for something that has existed since time began,' William Eccleshare, a principal in the marketing practice at McKinsey & Company, says.
Campbell believes that the subtle way viral marketing works is the key to its success. 'You're not sending someone something saying 'buy this product', you're sending something that is sponsored entertainment. Budweiser's 'whassup?' went around the world before we saw it in this country. The awareness was enormous before it was shown. Its cred went through the roof.'
Not surprisingly, with the potential of such a powerful marketing tool, advertising agencies and specialists are lining up to offer marketers viral advice and campaigns. Tim Carrigan, the managing partner of Ogilvy Interactive, set up the agency's viral division in September last year.
The first project for the division was to develop a viral campaign for Felix pet food. Potential consumers had to download a program which produced their own virtual Felix cat on their desktop. The cat would play on the screen while the user went about their work.
'Additional elements of the story could be rolled out over time, to keep the consumer in a dialogue with the brand,' Carrigan says. 'Everyone who was registered received a Christmas present for Felix.'
Michelle Norman, the PR manager for Budweiser UK, has tried new media as well. The Budweiser interactive website, which launched last September, is crammed with video clips of the 'whassup?' ads, screensavers and wallpaper for the user to download. But Norman points out: 'For the new-media side we couldn't work with our incumbent ad agency, we had to go to a specialist agency that was able to advise us and say what was innovative in the market.'
Norman opted to go for text messaging as the next medium for Budweiser's viral campaign. On the website you can request messages and images of the actors in the ads to be sent straight to your mobile phone. This has turned out to be one of the most popular areas of the site. 'We first started sending the text messaging last July at the V2000 music festival,' Norman explains. 'It's targeted and permission-based, so we know we are getting to the people who want to receive it. It's important that we make things relevant to them and don't annoy them by sending them junk mail.'
Others have boldly opted to steer clear of new media altogether. Jez Frampton, the managing director of Interbrand Interactive, was involved in a branding project for a cigarette manufacturer where the brief was to establish it as the Jack Daniels of cigarettes.
'The way we had to do it was by seeding opinion leader groups, so we picked on particular clubs and places in various cities around the world.'
Frampton chose to give the product to people in the clubs who looked like they would influence the behaviour of others. 'They were the DJs and their mates - so they were seen with this brand. The effect was people started talking about it and wanted to get hold of it.'
In November, Coca-Cola announced that it was going to rely purely on viral marketing to launch its energy drink Burn. It conducted the campaign in clubs in the UK and Australia, again planting the drink with 'group leaders', such as the barmen and the party organisers.
Andrew Coker, the director of communications for Coca-Cola UK, explains: 'We had no ad campaign. It has been in the most sophisticated clubs and bars and has been consumed by trendsetters. It has worked extremely well. They liked the fact that we didn't shout about it and let them discover it for themselves. Then it's word of mouth.
'Conventional marketing campaigns won't work with our traditional target audiences. They don't wish to be communicated to. You have to really focus on earning credibility. The rulebook is there for tearing up and starting again. If it works here, we'll use it as a template.'
So it's cheap, efficient and can establish a relationship with the consumer, but is there a downside?
'The only difficulty is that you're never sure how many people you're going to hit,' Campbell says. At the moment it's almost impossible to track this form of marketing. How many people passed it on to how many friends? Or how many people bought the drink because they saw someone drinking it? There is little or no accountability when it comes to viral marketing.
'You don't want to track people,' Campbell says. 'They don't like it.' Carrigan agrees: 'You can get the application to surreptitiously register back but that doesn't give you the consumer's name or their permission to continue the dialogue.'
Eccleshare doesn't pull his punches: 'Most of the cases you read about have happened almost by accident. The trick is to plan and create this snowballing effect. I've yet to see a great deal of evidence that shows that anybody has worked out a way to increase the chances of success.
'With viral marketing, you can sometimes generate high awareness but without getting it to the next stage of triggering any real change in behaviour. Viral marketing is a great tool, but there is a great deal more work to be done.'
'Sometimes it works, but 99 per cent of the time it doesn't,' Frampton admits. And for those marketers who see viral marketing as an answer to advertising fatigue, Frampton has a clear warning: 'People are already becoming cynical. The average consumer has grown up with marketing messages, has been subjected to virtually every trick in the book. If you think you are going to hoodwink them with something they haven't seen before, beware.'
As to which marketing services companies are best placed to help advertisers navigate through the issues, Frampton believes agencies are well placed, with one caveat. 'The trouble is that agencies tend to be good at one-way messages - broadcast - but this world is not about that. It's about conversation, not communication.'
Carrigan feels that his agency peers are not embracing viral marketing: 'A lot of agencies think it's just a flash in the pan. There's a very primitive understanding of what it can do for a brand.' Campbell goes further: 'Agencies need to create really good content or ideas for this medium. None of them at the moment are doing it with any success.'
These are issues agencies must address if they are to harness the potential of viral marketing. And with the launching pad of new media, the power of viral marketing - if it can be refined - to spread a message will be hard to ignore. You don't believe it? Just ask Claire Swire.
Coca-Cola's viral campaign was used to target clubbers
Burn is Coca-Cola's bid to establish itself in the energy drinks market alongside Red Bull. But the drinks giant has taken a decidedly different tack from conventional marketing techniques, choosing to shun the traditional forms of advertising and marketing in favour of a viral marketing approach.
'Conventional marketing campaigns won't work with our traditional target audiences. They don't wish to be communicated to. You have to really focus on earning credibility,'Andrew Coker, director of communications for Coca-Cola UK, says. So the Burn crew hit the clubs and bars of the UK and Australia giving the drink away to all those they identified as cool and who would influence the drinking tastes of the clubbing masses - the DJs and bar staff.
Viral marketing led to a rise in youth viewing figures
When the Sci-Fi Channel wanted to move away from its nerdy image and become cool, it fell to HHCL & Partners to do the seemingly impossible.
As well as using traditional marketing techniques, it chose to run with a viral campaign.
To profile a mad weekend of 'Fucked Up TV' on the channel that included out-there videos from Aphex Twin and Salvador Dali's Un Chien Andalu, HHCL sent out e-mails, fly-posters and T-shirts to opinion-formers. Promo material was designed to look like it was advertising a rock festival rather than a weekend's sci-fi TV.
After John Carter (Sara Cox's squeeze) was photographed wearing a Head Fuck T-shirt in the News of the World, the client was inundated with requests for samples. Afterwards, the station's ranking with 16- to 24-year-olds jumped from 15th to 8th.
The website allowed users to download a virtual cat
The screensaver shows Felix prancing about your desktop looking cute and playing with balls of string and toy mice. Ogilvy Interactive brought out a series of updates for the program that included birthday greetings and new toys for your cat. They even e-mailed a Christmas pressie for all registered Felixes out in cyber space, all in the cause of establishing a 'dialogue' with the consumers.
Tens of thousands have downloaded the application so far from the website.
There's no telling exactly how many have passed it on to other cat lovers, because not all users bother to register the program (most know that the consequences of doing such a thing will result in being spammed).
The client estimates that more than one million computers have the software installed.
The 'whassup?' ads reached the UK first via e-mail
Few could have escaped the 'whassup?' ads doing the e-mail rounds last year. So successful was the e-mail medium, that many had seen the US TV spots on the internet before they even hit UK screens.
Budweiser followed this up by providing downloads on its website. But the chance to send 'whassup?' messages and images to mobile phones proved irresistible for users.
Budweiser also sponsored festivals including V2000 and the Notting Hill Carnival, offering a prize draw with the only entrance criteria being that you were over 18 and were prepared to submit your mobile number.