I had a meeting a couple of weeks ago with a corporate client who wanted me to write an online advertisement.
Here’s the thing, though. The guy who called me for the job didn’t say that he wanted me to write on online ad. He said that he wanted me to write a viral video.
Then he went on to say that the company had already allocated a million-and-a-half dollars to promote and distribute it to make sure that it went viral. He said it would probably get played on a lot of morning news shows and maybe even some of the late-night talk shows.
That’s how it works these days, he explained. It’s not like things just go viral. You have to have a whole machine behind them, make it a press event. It has to be newsworthy, he said, like that Jean-Claude Van Damme thing where he does a split between two moving trucks.
The number of things that are wrong with his premise is so high that as I begin to think about enumerating them, they multiply exponentially in my head. Or rather, they would, if exponential multiplication could take place without a $1.5 million machine behind it.
Those of us who were alive in the nineties, when the first dot-com boom took place, will remember that originally “going viral on the Internet” was an expression coined to describe the process for a particularly funny, poignant or original post – often nothing more than a typed-text joke or story — to organically spread from one person’s email list to another’s, becoming part of the cyber-zeitgeist simply because people wanted to share it with one another and suddenly had a way of doing it.
Naturally, it wasn’t long before marketing executives saw this as a way of reaching a vast marketplace with very little expense. By 2001 or 2002 every young marketing executive was talking about how the key to Internet exposure was to put a video or an image on the web that would go viral. At least at that point the idea was still about creating something so interesting that it would “go viral.”
Now, with multimillion-dollar promotional budgets, companies have taken the organic process where humans share with other humans and turned it into a meaningless buzzword for market penetration via paid advertisement. Who would have thought it was possible to take something as natural as viral spread and turn it into something sick?
When he said that there was no money to pay me, but that it would be good exposure to a global audience, I told him I couldn’t take the job. I told him that he could spend his entire budget trying to make a commercial go viral or he could spend the money on a good writer and have something that stood a chance of going viral on its own.
Aw, who am I kidding? I asked for a few thousand dollars and wrote him a funny little video to shoot. If it goes viral, I’ll talk a lot about how it’s a thing I wrote. I suspect it will just show up to interrupt people’s Words With Friends games.
When I delivered the script and collected my check, we shook hands and I’m almost certain he gave me the flu.
Off-Ramp commentator Dylan Brody, author of "Writ Large," available on iTunes, could do the splits between a pair of Volvos if he wanted to.