The Power Of Viral

What can we learn from #AlexFromTarget?
Who is #AlexFromTarget? It’s hard to tell because it all happened so fast, but apparently it began when some teenage girls from Texas tweeted a photo of a cute boy working at the retailer Target. For reasons we may never understand, the photo went viral, and what seemed like a second later Alex was being interviewed on the Ellen DeGeneres show. Then, a PR company called Breakr Nation came forward claiming at least partial credit for the #AlexFromTarget story; not to have started the viral campaign exactly, but to have boosted it: “We wanted to see how powerful the fangirl demographic was by taking a unknown good-looking kid and Target employee from Texas to overnight viral internet sensation,” CEO of Breakr Nation, Dil-Domine Jacobe Leonares, wrote on ‘LinkedIn’.
Now, if you are an adult with a job and a life, you’re probably not going to care all that much about  #AlexFromTarget, who is now famous for nothing in the most literal sense. But the absurdity of the whole situation is arguably an interesting talking point regarding how marketers are struggling with this thing called online marketing. Case in point: earlier this year, threats to reveal naked photos of actor Emma Watson turned out to be a ill-conceived marketing hoax. As the Watson story followed the actual revelations of naked celebrity photos after the iCloud security breach, it’s hard to imagine what marketers can hope to achieve by aligning themselves with these stories. Even when the event in question is relatively harmless, like with #AlexFromTarget, any discovery of the events being manipulated is likely to stop an internet meme dead in its tracks:
“I don’t think corporations really understand how the creative power of the internet works – or at least which direction it runs. Memes are grassroots, organic, democratic – they bubble up from a community and become its linchpins,” Jess Zimmerman wrote in ‘The Guardian’. “Marketing, by contrast, is imposed, unnatural, manipulated. Memes are handed around from person to person; marketing is handed down to people by companies. Trying to replace the former with the latter is irritating to users and, frankly, embarrassing for brands.”
Having said that, you can’t really blame brands for being interested in virality: it creates spontaneous memes which are sometimes fantastically random (LolCats!), generating enviable engagement through sharing, catchphrases and – the biggest flattery of all –  spinoffs. But the unmanipulated nature of these viral memes are also half the point, meaning brands need to be upfront about their involvement or risk a backlash.
Earlier this year, a video of a group of strangers kissing after just meeting for the first time went viral. At first, it appeared to be an art project and people loved it, but soon it was revealed as an ad for a fashion label called Wren. The video remained just as adorable, but  people felt tricked because the brand involvement wasn’t declared from the beginning.
The good news for brands is that people will often be just as happy to share openly branded content too, as long as the marketing is clear from the start. An emotionally compelling video from Dove, featuring women being drawn by a sketch artist to show how they saw themselves differently than the outside world, received over 60 million hits last year. People were happy to share this video because they liked it, and the branding didn’t bother them because it was straightforward.

What makes a great viral campaign remains up for discussion, but the difference in reactions to the Dove video and #AlexFromTarget demonstrates one thing: authenticity matters. The internet moves so fast that occasionally a hoax slips through, but that doesn’t mean the internet is directly to blame for ridiculous memes like young Alex. People enjoyed a good yarn before the internet too, and they used this old-fashioned distribution method called “gossip”. Everybody knows to take gossip with a pinch of salt.
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