During the early days of Internet advertising, skeptics often argued that Web ads would never sell prosaic packaged goods effectively.
As more Americans become comfortable with the Web, though, major marketers are increasingly asking agencies to produce elaborate, interactive online campaigns - even for grocery store goods that hardly anyone researches or buys online.
One of the shiniest lures online is the developing field of viral advertising, in which companies try to create messages so compelling, funny or suggestive that consumers spontaneously share them with friends, often through e-mail or cellphone text messages. The goal is the exponential spread of ads that are endorsed by consumers' own friends.
The best-known viral success may be the offbeat "Subservient Chicken" site, created to promote a Burger King chicken sandwich. The site, which shows a person in a chicken suit who seems to follow typed commands from Web surfers, has drawn 13.9 million unique visitors since it went live in April 2004, according to the agency that created it, Crispin Porter & Bogusky in Miami.
Thus far the energetic rise of viral marketing has been fueled largely by such bizarre creations, along with young, hip and technology-savvy Web surfers. But its promise is finally tempting marketers like Georgia-Pacific to test the tactic on much broader audiences.
Georgia-Pacific has begun a campaign, created by Fallon New York, part of the Fallon Worldwide division of the Publicis Groupe, that uses a viral component to sell Brawny paper towels to women, age 25 to 54.
"This is definitely a new approach for us," said Alfredo Ortiz, senior brand manager for Brawny at Georgia-Pacific in Atlanta. But the growing number of Americans with high-speed Internet access includes millions of women, he said. "There's definitely room to market to this target."
To seed the campaign, as viral marketers say, Georgia-Pacific sent a single blast of e-mail messages last week to consumers who had signed up for newsletters from www.allyourrooms.com, a Georgia-Pacific site that provides information on topics like decorating, entertaining and cleaning.
Visitors to the Brawny site will find a section for the tongue-in-cheek "Innocent Escapes" videos in which a strong but sensitive Brawny Man offers compliments like, "By the way, you look beautiful today - something about your eyes."
Ari Merkin, executive creative director at Fallon New York, noted that "Innocent Escapes" visitors would find both a "play movie" button and an all-important second button, "send to a friend."
"If someone passes one of these things along, it's an endorsement," Mr. Merkin said. "It does wonders for us."
Brand managers for Brawny and its larger competitor, Bounty, still spend minuscule portions of their annual ad budgets on Internet advertising. From January through November 2004, for example, Brawny spent less than 1 percent of its $24.2 million estimated budget on the Web, with 31.4 percent devoted to broadcast network television commercials, according to estimates by TNS Media Intelligence.
In the same period, Bounty devoted less than 1 percent of its estimated $60.4 million ad spending to the Internet, with 34.2 percent of the ad budget going to broadcast network television buys, TNS Media Intelligence said.
But for Brawny, the No. 2 paper towel brand, new tactics may offer the best hope to erode a daunting Bounty lead. Last year, shoppers spent $240.6 million on Brawny paper towels, according to data from Information Resources Inc., which tallies sales in supermarkets, drugstores and mass merchandisers excluding Wal-Mart. By comparison, Bounty sales totaled $853.5 million, by Information Resources' estimate.
Another company, Frito-Lay North America, has begun promoting a packaged product, Doritos, with a yearlong integrated campaign incorporating big text-message and online components. But its core target comprises teenagers and adults up to 25 years old, who seem the most familiar with and receptive to viral approaches.
Kickoff teasers for the Doritos campaign included enigmatic billboards asking passers-by to text message "inNw" to a certain number, 46691, or visit www.inNw.com. Those who send text messages receive quick responses on their phones from Doritos challenging them to guess what "inNw" means, thereby engaging them in dialogue and potentially making the question a conversation point among friends.
The flagship New York office of BBDO Worldwide, part of the Omnicom Group, created the "inNw" Doritos campaign. The text-message component was developed by HipCricket in Essex, Conn., a five-month-old wireless marketing and event agency.
Text messaging and Web fluency is spreading among consumers, said Lora DeVuono, vice president for advertising and communications at Frito-Lay in Plano, Tex., part of PepsiCo. "In terms of lifestyle integration," she said, however, "it's the under-30 crowd that's focused on its complete integration in their lives."
As viral marketing gains adherents, it is also gaining awards shows like this week's Viral Awards in New York. The event, a North American version of the Viral Awards in Britain, primarily honored bizarre or risqué work like "Subservient Chicken" and an online campaign for Trojan condoms that portrayed seminude athletes vaulting into sexual positions.
"The sophomoric, shock-driven work is going to predominate for a while," said Owen Plotkin, president at the Now Corporation in New York, an editing boutique for television commercials and viral productions that was host for the awards. "That's the easiest way to ensure people pass something along."
"It's really hard to make something so compelling that it makes people want to share," Mr. Plotkin said. "But that can happen, too, and it does happen."
The success of Brawny's "Innocent Escapes" depends largely on the entertainment value it brings visitors, said Stephen Strong, director for interactive at the Chicago office of Foote Cone & Belding, part of the Interpublic Group of Companies. "It's human nature to share that stuff," he said. "People will be sending each other stuff online until the Internet shuts down."
Nat Ives, The New York Times. February 18, 2005
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