The cost of a steamy ad campaign spread via the Internet featuring sexy hotel heiress Paris Hilton: Millions.
The buzz it generates for the California fast-food chain's new burger: Priceless.
Word of Hilton's racy 30-second TV commercial for CKE Restaurants Inc.'s Carl's Jr. is spreading like a virus since it first aired last week, thanks in part to innovative marketing. The campaign's Web site, www.spicyparis.com, which offers an extended 60-second version of the ad and pictures people can e-mail -- has caused word to spread like wildfire.
The ad campaign is set to air in metro Detroit later this month for Hardee's, another CKE-owned chain.
This so-called viral marketing is designed to quickly spread an advertiser's message among consumers online, much like a virus. Viral ads draw on age-old wisdom that the most effective form of advertising is word-of-mouth.
This growing form of marketing speaks to the increasing desperation by advertisers to find creative ways to combat new technology that threatens their ability to reach consumers through traditional methods. Digital video recorders that allow people to skip TV commercials and MP3 players that allow people to listen to their favorite songs commercial-free give consumers control over what ads actually reach them.
Viral ads are another way advertisers are attempting to bypass those roadblocks by strategically placing their message into customers' current activities, similar to product placements on TV shows. Other brands such as Mini Cooper, Anheuser-Busch and Burger King are also using viral ads to create buzz and drum up sales.
"This is a tool that some advertisers are using to get around consumer controls," said Scott Donaton, editor of Advertising Age, an industry trade publication. "It's a question of whether the advertiser can effectively integrate their content where the customer chooses to spend his or her time."
A firestorm erupted after Carl's Jr.'s Spicy Burger ads, which begin with a scantily clad Hilton washing -- or groping -- an already shiny black Bentley and end with her seductively taking a bite out of the chain's new burger, started airing on the West Coast last week.
The $9-million ad campaign -- with the same Spicy Burger TV spots that will air later this month for Hardee's in other areas of the country -- drew media attention after watchdog groups called the commercials too edgy for television.
But the media attention, and people e-mailing the ads drove so much traffic to the Web site that it crashed soon after the ads aired.
"This ad campaign gets hungry guys to say, 'Wow, I can't believe Carl did something outrageous like that,' which bonds guys to the ads," said Brad Haley, the chain's executive vice president of marketing. "We do have people coming in the restaurants and asking for the 'Paris' burger. We've had millions of hits on the Web site."
Other companies have made viral a big hit. Perhaps two of the most popular examples come from Crispin Porter & Bogusky, a Miami advertising firm that gained recognition for creating the "Subservient Chicken" campaign to promote Burger King's chicken sandwich.
The site, www.subservientchicken.com, urges customers to "Get chicken just the way you want it" and features a man in a chicken suit who dances based on what commands are typed.
This year, Crispin had another success when it created a fictitious group called the Counter Counterfeit Commission and launched a Web site to supplement commercials highlighting tricked-out vehicles that are supposed to be fake Minis to drive U.S. sales of the popular Mini Coopers. The site, www.counterfeitmini.org, even has video footage of police dogs sniffing for fake Minis and sells a $19.99 DVD detailing the underworld of counterfeit Minis.
"This kind of marketing kind of sneaks its way in and before you know it, you're telling your friends about it," said Andrew Keller, Crispin creative director.
Audi of America recently launched a viral ad similar to the Mini ads. On its Web site, it spoofs the search for its 2006 A3 hatchback, which the site claims was stolen from a Manhattan Audi showroom.
Although viral can be an effective way to get the word out quickly about new products, it has its pitfalls. Because it's new and often combined with more traditional forms of advertising such as TV commercials, it's difficult to measure success.
Additionally, viral is known to resonate more with young adults age 18 to 34 because that generation is more Web savvy. Thus, a company looking to tap into the over-65 crowd probably wouldn't benefit as much.
For now, viral ads are somewhat of a novelty. But if this type of marketing becomes more common, it has potential to backfire.
"There's a limit to how many times viral can be done before customers become numb to it," Donaton said. "And at a certain point, people realize they're playing right into their hands."
Kortney Stringer, Detroit Free Press. June 3, 2005
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