There's something about a distant cousin of Big Bird that has captivated internet users from America to Asia. It's a website where you can boss about a man in a chicken outfit by typing in commands (such as die, sleep, run, crack a difficult client brief).
The point is to show that you can have a Burger King Tender Crisp Chicken Sandwich any way you want. It ties in with Burger King's TV campaign, which has resurrected the endline: "Have it your way." The website, www.subservientchicken.com, also features films starring the submissive chicken being ordered about, in case you need any inspiration for what command to type in.
It takes only a few people to find it funny, forward it to their friends and, before you can say "chicken sandwich with mayo and no salad", a star is born.
The website reportedly had eight million hits worldwide in the first two days after going live. According to the agency that produced it, Crispin Porter & Bogusky in Miami, the total number of hits for the website nudges 100 million and the average length of time people spend with the chicken is seven-and-a-half minutes. In other words, users engage with the chicken for almost twice the length of the average TV commercial break.
John Hegarty, the chairman and worldwide creative director of Bartle Bogle Hegarty, is smitten: "It's wonderful to see this subservient chicken showing that you can have chicken any way. It's very funny and great to see on a big mainstream brand."
The site is causing ripples across the globe. Ajoy RoyChowdhury, the business director for Tequila in Australia, comments: "It was sent to me by six different sources. The link to the product is smart, while on a brand level it associates Burger King with being funny, innovative and smart."
Viral ads are starting to gain momentum. Wieden & Kennedy New York produced one for its former client Sega when it was launching First Person Football against the market leader, Madden. On a $300,000 budget, the www.beta-7.com campaign exploited the web's propagation of conspiracy theories and reportedly helped Sega to achieve a year-on-year sales increase of 20 per cent.
Ty Montague, the co-creative director at Wieden & Kennedy in New York, says: "We created a four-month piece of live interactive theatre and the storyline involved three separate websites, viral videos and voicemails."
Virals suit the gaming sector. TBWA\Germany used viral as part of its campaign for PlayStation 2's game The Getaway. And Xbox's "Champagne" commercial was released virally before it launched on television.
The viral ads that create the most buzz are the ones offering something new and usually a bit risque. Unilever's Lynx brand has used viral campaigns all over the world. It launched as Axe in New York last year with a strong viral element showing the good and bad side of "man's essence". So a man's behaviour is shown in a textbook, clean and wholesome "good" way, before the film is rewound to show the same action but in a slightly devilish "bad" way.
William Gelner, the creative director on Axe at BBH New York, comments: "We did an entire launch of the brand with viral and it was one of the most successful things we've ever done. We used banners to get people to click on the film and there were 700,000 unique visitors in the first month and 500,000 of those did not come from the banner."
This shows the ultimate beauty of virals: with just the click of a mouse, a viral can be sent to an electronic address book that could span the globe.
John Owen, the planning director at Dare Digital, which has produced Lynx's UK viral activity, says: "There's no way you can limit a viral campaign geographically. In 1999, a ten-second cut of the Flat Eric Levi's campaign was sent out from the office at Motive. It came back into someone's inbox two weeks later and it had been halfway around the world."
And it is this potential that puts brands under pressure to get their viral ads right, or they will simply be ignored. Digital agencies agree that a viral ad should not just be seen as an add-on.
Martin Bailie, the planning director of Glue London, reveals the pressure of getting it right: "It really is the most difficult advertising to do, as you're not just putting an ad in front of someone, you're asking them to be an advocate and pass it on to a mate. Something has to be really good for someone to download it."
And most of the time, "good" means "funny". Matt Smith, the managing director of The Viral Factory, says: "That's what people want. Virals are very reliant on humour. I think they're over-reliant." Demand for virals has doubled over the past year, according to Smith, whose company brought us that talented gymnastic couple from Trojan Condoms' Olympics.
The message is resoundingly clear: virals will keep moving us to hit the "forward" button and share the joke with the rest of the world. But only if the joke is strong enough to start with.