For those who haven't seen it yet, the spoof Volkswagen "suicide bomber" clip can be seen at www.boreme.com. By the time you read this, the perpetrators of this viral outrage could be behind bars, but somehow it seems unlikely: having registered its anger, VW has since accepted an apology from the creators of the spot and dropped the threat of legal action.
The bizarre aspect to this episode is the fact that the producers of the clip (they can be found at LeeandDan.com) aren't anti-advertising guerrillas with a pathological hatred of German car companies.
They are creatives. They made the clip in an attempt to impress VW and its agency. They were touting for work - and have a track record in this part of the business. The clip wasn't meant for public consumption; it managed to escape into cyberspace quite by accident.
Careless. The effect was the same, however. A reminder, if a reminder were needed, that mischief spreads faster than the speed of light on the internet.
Somewhat perversely, it's also a reminder that viral is still very much with us - and has been continuing to seek a legitimate place on mainstream marketing schedules in recent years.
Ironically, Volkswagen has in the past been known to push the boundaries of taste and decency with its own virals. Check out, for example, "bollocks" (at www.kontraband.com) which features a little girl saying, er, "bollocks".
1. Viral activity is almost as old as the web itself and pioneers were experimenting with the potential of e-mail by the mid-90s. But the first real milestone of viral as an evangelical marketing creed can be traced to the publication, in 2000, of The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell. The book outlined how, in special circumstances, a small initial stimulus can translate into a massive consumer response.
2. Hotmail was the world's first internet viral success story. Every time someone received an e-mail from a Hotmail user, they got an attached message about the concept of free e-mail. Hotmail never advertised, yet had a global presence within months.
3. The concept of a viral as generally understood in commercial terms - an e-mail with a full video attachment or a link to a clip hosted on a website - was actually developed in the UK. The most famous example from the late 90s was "headrush". Created by The Viral Factory to demonstrate the potential of the new medium, it shows someone blowing up a rubber dinghy until their head explodes.
4. The Viral Factory has remained at the forefront of viral as it has become an increasingly mainstream commercial vehicle. One its most successful executions, for MTV, featured a child who opens his Christmas present, finds a Star Wars lightsaber and goes berserk, cutting his granny's head off.
5. The "whassup?" viral from Budweiser opened up a grey area when it was spoofed by amateur creatives - this activity was encouraged by the company. A number of advertisers have had their content spoofed, sometimes to their annoyance, sometimes not.
6. The BMW films launch was one of the biggest recent landmarks. The company spent $10 million commissioning short films from famous directors. These were viewable only on a website and news of their existence was spread entirely by viral e-mail.
7. Other landmark campaigns include the John West "man fights bear" clip, initially conceived as a TV ad but seen by most people only on the web. Another TV commercial exposed almost entirely on the internet was the infamous Xbox "Champagne" ad - it was banned from TV for being metaphysically disturbing.
8. Advertiser spend on viral has, according to some estimates, doubled between 2000 and 2005. The bulk of the industry is still based in the UK, where the business is worth anywhere in the region of £15 million to £40 million.
9. Trojan condoms' 2004 "sex Olympics" campaign is one of the most successful of recent times. The clip was downloaded more than 40 million times.
10. Viral advertising now has its own awards (www.viralawards.com). Lycos also runs a top-ten chart of the most popular clips.
WHAT IT MEANS FOR ...
- Five years ago, viral was very much an afterthought. Now, some advertisers view viral as a great way of getting something for nothing. Others are prepared to spend some money on quality content.
- For a viral clip to gain currency it has to be funny, clever, beautiful or mischievous. Advertisers run the risk of ending up in dubious or distasteful territory.The Ford Ka viral, where a cat gets its head cut off when the sun roof closes, is a case in point.
- For those advertisers who are genuinely interested in exploring viral, the VW furore will help to clarify a few boundaries.
- Digital agencies are keen to sell the idea that viral is a much more subtle and sophisticated technique than it is sometimes credited with. They argue that it's not just a guerrilla marketing device for streetwise youth brands - or for their misguided imitators.
- Steve Henry, the chairman and executive creative director of HHCL Red Cell, says that everyone in the ad industry should be aware of what's going on in viral.In a world where ad avoidance is getting easier by the month, mainstream agencies will increasingly be forced to live in the world of the viral creative. Henry says: "Either you laugh at a viral or you don't. Either you send it on or you don't. Not many ads on TV would pass the viral test. The challenge, though, is to make a viral technique relevant to the brand."