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Ads face viral parodies

Whassup? Want to read it again? WHASSSUUP?! The Budweiser ad campaign that created the greatest catch phrase since "Where's the beef?" has also inspired a new art form of sorts: the viral parody.

Budweiser has discovered more than 70 knockoffs of its "Whassup" ads alone, scattered on myriad sites across the Web. One of the Web sites even offers tips on how to make your own parody.

"I'm quite sure that many people were exposed to the campaign by parody first," says Steve Jackson, senior vice president for DDB Chicago and the person in charge of the Anheuser-Busch account.

For many marketers, the experience could be seen as the quintessential brand-dilution nightmare. Budweiser's response? Laugh and play along.

Last summer, the behemoth beer maker placed an unreleased-to-television "Whassup" spot at a hidden location within the Budweiser.com site. Jackson and company then launched a word-of-mouth e-mail campaign, beginning with several of his own agency staffers, giving the location of the Quicktime video. Within a month, 16,000 people had downloaded the ad.

"The overwhelming majority of these parodies are done with such fun that it actually fits what we want to do," Jackson reasons. "It's made it a much, much bigger campaign... Imitation is truly the sincerest form of flattery."

Pop art or put down?

In this era of desktop design, digital video, and viral marketing, ad parodies are a fast-growing form of pop art and entertainment. Recognizing how to gauge and execute an appropriate response to parody is becoming an ever more familiar, and delicate, task for today's brands.

"When you're staring these [parodies] in the face, it's hard for companies to separate wisdom from emotion," says Craig Branigan, president and COO of Landor Associates, a brand consulting firm based in San Francisco. "It's a very fine line."

Ten years ago, only Saturday Night Live had the technology, money, and reach to produce and disseminate comic knockoffs of television ads to a wide audience. Today, anybody can do the same with a PC, cheap software, and an Internet connection.

From the benign to the brazen, homemade parodies of widely recognized marketing campaigns swirl around the Net as e-mail attachments and Web links. Twists on campaigns by MasterCard, Mentos, Apple Computer, and Absolut Vodka are often more common on the Web than the original ads themselves.

With the growing ubiquity of brand marketing, ad parodies inevitably grow as well, as people recast the images that are familiar to them, says Naomi Klein, author of No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies (Picador USA).

"Ads and logos are our shared global culture and language, and people are insisting on the right to use that language, to reformulate it in the way that artists and writers always do with cultural material," Klein says.

Is it lawsuit worthy?

Some marketers have been far less breezy in their response to wisecrackers. Last autumn, MasterCard sued Green Party presidential candidate Ralph Nader for his televised ad parodying the credit card giant's "Priceless" campaign.

Also last year, the California Fluid Milk Processors Advisory Board threatened to sue People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) for lampooning its long-running "Got Milk?" campaign via a series of billboards and trading cards that questioned the health benefits of milk and criticized the ethics of milk production.

"In that case, there was a feeling that a response was necessary, because there was a material charge embedded in what PETA was doing," says Rich Silverstein of Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, the San Francisco agency responsible for the "Got Milk?" campaign.

When lampooners make false accusations, a legal response may be appropriate. While it's hard to predict where ad parodies will show up, it's often not difficult to catch wind of them early and track their source.

Companies such as Cyveillance, eWatch, and the Delahaye Medialink offer "brand-watching" services, alerting clients when their names or logos crop up in online discussion forums and on unauthorized Web sites.

"The trick is to move quickly if you're going to move at all, and come down with a ton of bricks," asserts Jack Trout, president of Trout & Partners, a marketing strategy firm in Old Greenwich, Conn.

But stern responses can backfire. In 1990, McDonald's sued two British activists for distributing several hundred leaflets depicting the company's brand mascot as a greedy corporate overlord.

The resulting court action, known as the "McLibel Trial," became the longest trial in British history, and millions of people have since downloaded the infamous leaflet from the McSpotlight.org Web site. Even though McDonald's eventually won, branding experts agree the company did far more harm than good to its reputation by pursuing the case.

"The risk is turning a molehill into a mountain," Trout says. "If the press notices that you're coming down on someone, it'll all get magnified and all of a sudden the company is the bad guy."

Grin and bear it

Thus, in most cases, the best response is to stay the course. "A lot of CEOs, when they see their expensive marketing campaign being made fun of, their first inclination is to go get these guys; but you must realize you may be serving [parody makers] better by going after them than just letting them fade away into obscurity," says Landor's Branigan. "You want to foster your brand, not create folk heroes."

Parodies, even when they sting a little, can often be good for your ad campaign, and are rarely harmful. A few tips to consider when you've become the butt of an online joke.

  • 1. WATCH IT JIGGLE: Crude or pornographic takeoffs of your ads will never be confused by consumers as the real thing. Best response: File it away.
  • 2. SNOT FUNNY: Irreverent send-ups of serious or emotion-driven campaigns might seem to demean your message. While it's hard to stomach a kick-me sign pasted to your straight-faced pitchman, remember that laughter is good medicine. Best response: Stay the course. Or better still, play along, as MasterCard has done in its recent "Priceless" ads.
  • 3. IS IT LIVE, OR IS IT MEMOREX? If an ad parody is so true-to-form that viewers are confused about its source, relax. Your brand is growing without your help. Best response: a lightly worded disclaimer on your Web site, or no response at all.
  • 4. GO AHEAD, MAKE MY DAY: Activists of all stripes seek publicity for their causes. Unless they're lying about your brand, and unless you can prove it, pursuing legal action will probably only help them achieve their goals. Best response: Make sure the public hears your side of the story; only pursue legal action if you are certain there is a material threat to your business.


Joe Ashbrook Nickell, Cnnfn.com. May 18, 2001

Copyright © 2001 CNN America, Inc.. All rights reserved.