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Advertisers Go Viral


Internet hits raise brand profiles.

Most people wouldn't normally care about an April 17 baseball game between the Fresno Grizzlies and Tacoma Rainiers of the Pacific Coast League. But a long foul ball by Tacoma outfielder Brent Johnson made headlines when it was snagged by a stadium ball girl, who propelled herself off the outfield wall, leapt several feet into the air, and made a spectacular grab. Footage of the catch, entitled Ball Girl, made its way online a couple of months later, drawing over 1 million views on YouTube.

But the catch never really happened: It was an ad produced by agency Element79 for Gatorade (PEP), and it was just the latest in a line of viral-video hits.

Ironically, Ball Girl was never meant to be seen. Gatorade shelved the ad, but "someone" (Element79 disclaims responsibility) posted the video online. Unintentional as the campaign's launch ostensibly was, companies are intentionally looking to these online-only videos to extend their brands.

"We have seen a great shift in audiences from traditional portals to social networks. It has required big brands to look for new ways of reaching that audience," says Jennifer Cooper, CEO of MixerCast, a company that has helped clients such as NBC and McDonald's reach an online audience. "The metrics of what is a successful campaign have changed."

One of MixerCast's clients, Nike (NKE), has been particularly active with viral video. Last year, a video of basketball star Kobe Bryant leaping over a speeding Aston Martin tore up the Internet. Audiences were entranced - despite Bryant's unapologetically brandishing his Nike shoes before making the jump (which was widely dismissed as fake).

"We've done a lot of work with Nike. They're definitely on the forefront," says Cooper. "I think what they're finding is the minute they engage the user, they make a connection."

Nike's logo was more subtly implanted in a recent video starring Gossip Girl actress Taylor Momsen, in which she escapes from swarming paparazzi by jumping over cars and scaling walls (all while wearig Nike apparel, of course). Unique as the campaign was, it was undermined by countless YouTube videos of Momsen -- age 15 -- smoking cigarettes. That oversight shows the medium can be undermined.

Activision, Microsoft, T-Mobile, and Cadbury have all waged successful viral campaigns, but an overreliance on the concept can generate backlash. Ray-Ban's (LUX) recent video -- featuring 2 friends effortlessly lobbing sunglasses onto one another's faces, including tosses from an overpass and into a moving vehicle -- became an Internet smash, generating more than 4 million YouTube views.

But Ray-Ban then launched a bizarre sequel, in which a cow gives birth to a gaunt, bearded man - who then puts on his Ray-Bans before scampering off. The new video earned plenty of attention, but drew almost universally poor reviews. Successful as these viral campaigns have been, they can go horribly wrong.
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