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September 1, 2009

Steer Clear of the Viral Marketing Mind Freak

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Have you ever watched “Criss Angel Mindfreak”? I was turned on to the program as something to watch when you want to get so mad it feels good. In watching just one episode, I saw straight through several illusions — clunky, awkward, silly illusions.

If Criss Angel does it for you, then stop reading this now. But if you don’t plan to take my playful Criss-bashing personally, read on for what I think we can learn from this entertainer’s pseudo skills.

magic card
CC BY-SA 2.0

So back to that episode. There was this one trick — man, I wish I could find a video online! — where Angel was walking alongside a baseball diamond, all slow and pensive like. He was tossing a baseball up in the air… up and down… up and down.

Each step was drawn out to heighten the drama. What would he do next? Uh, more walking. This is getting old, right? Thankfully, someone in production fast forwards the walking until Criss gets to a large billboard.

Now he takes the baseball in his hand and starts tossing it against the billboard. Once. Twice. Three times. Four. He grips his baseball and knocks it against the post of the sign a couple times. It resonates with a hollow, metallic “clink clink!”

Criss steps behind the post. He takes a shoulder-width stance, wraps his arms around the pole, and then proceeds to wiggle his body right through the post. His face is tight with a grimace of pain. He makes guttural noises that seem to echo from his soul. And then, as if the solid metal post bent to his will, he’s on the other side of the sign, having mysteriously defied the laws of physics.

The key to blowing open this illusion is noticing the things that just don’t resonate as real. That fast forwarding during his lazy stroll to the sign? A cover for the edit that pastes together film of Angel walking alongside a baseball diamond and film of him in front of a green screen.

His bouncing the ball against the sign? Can’t pull a fast one on me, Angel. Green screen technology isn’t flawless and I can usually detect the glowing outline people appear to have. Sound effects created the illusion that the sign and its posts were really there. The whole trick was done thanks to CGI and the distance created by television viewing. Ain’t no magic in that.

magician in frame
CC BY 2.0

“Wow, I guess Virginia doesn’t like Criss Angel! Is that what this is about?” you ask. Yeah, I guess I went far into detail there. But Angel needs to learn that he’s performing to an intelligent audience. A lot of us are wise to these tricky ways, and they’re not going to be fooling anyone for very long.

At NPR.org last week, blogger Linda Holmes wrote about the fading effect of “viral” marketing.

Now, most of us define viral marketing as content that spreads through online social interactions between friends and colleagues. But marketers in traditional channels like TV and print are extending the definition for their own benefit to include any marketing that doesn’t come out and say what’s being marketed. The hope is that such messages will spark curiosity and interest.

Problem is, we’ve caught on to this sleight of hand. And it’s not going to work much longer:

In order to work, campaigns like this one have to spark bafflement, and bafflement is harder to come by as more and more such campaigns are undertaken. When we reach a point of full-on “When in doubt, suspect viral marketing” savvy, the whole thing is over.

[...] You might be mildly curious, but you know you’re hearing a pitch, so you have your skeptical-consumer hat on from the beginning. And as you know, your authentic-curiosity hat and your skeptical-consumer hat cannot be worn simultaneously.

If we can learn anything from the dopey dark angel, it’s that we as an audience are smart, we’re real, and we’re looking for other smart and real people to relate to. If you’re hot on creating a piece of viral marketing gold, don’t be coy about what you have to offer a sophisticated audience. Don’t try to fool me into finding out more, only to be disappointed by a product or service I don’t care about.

Remember that the key to marketing magic isn’t in the trickery. It’s in the beauty of a spectacle that leaves me wanting more. So leave me wanting more of the real you.





9 responses to “Steer Clear of the Viral Marketing Mind Freak”

  1. Lisa Barone writes:

    I have nothing constructive to say other than “f’n awesome”.

  2. Al Swearengen writes:

    Just because your on the upper end of the bell curve does not mean your insights apply to the 80% that are not.
    You represent a tiny tiny slice of the market. If that were not true, Fox News would not be killing it now. Look at the 48 million goobers that suck up that slop.
    They don’t care about slicing and dicing the whys and wherefores of his tricks, they just believe cuz they want too. And they are the same goobers that click on that viral button.

    The idea that sleight of hand, trickery, and a 100 other charlatan methods of aggregating the mobs are not going to work for long, is preposterous, and forgive me if I say so, ARROGANT.
    If your giving the advice you wrote to clients I feel bad for them because of your malpractice. You really don’t get it. Fox News, Digg, Reddit, and a 100 other sites make a fortune every day using viral techniques on their audience, BECAUSE IT WORKS…
    You only think viral is dying because you caught the trick, but your not the market, your just a bright cookie on the far right of the “gotcha scale” that’s just a bit to naive to understand there is nothing new under the sun.
    There will always be more hoopleheads than smart cookies, and so me thinks your pronouncements of the demise of viral marketing are the vain expressions of a highly intelligent but youthful and inexperienced wanna be marketer.
    Good luck with that…

  3. andrew wee writes:

    “Remember that the key to marketing magic isn’t in the trickery. It’s in the beauty of a spectacle that leaves me wanting more. So leave me wanting more of the real you.”

    -sounds like the equivalent of romancing through the linguistic medium or otherwise.

    That’s another kind of magic.

  4. Lisa Barone writes:

    I completely agree with Al. Virginia advising clients to keep in mind the intelligence of their audience and to not wrap a bullshit product in glitter is complete malpractice on Bruce Clay Inc’s part. Totally.
    Also, I’m stealing this line:
    “your [sic] just a bright cookie on the far right of the “gotcha scale” that’s just a bit to naive to understand there is nothing new under the sun.”
    I can’t wait to whip that out at a party after I’ve had a few too many.

  5. Virginia Nussey writes:

    Hi *Al*,

    First off, ouch! I should probably thank you for helping me to build up some thicker skin!

    When it comes to viral marketing, I was NOT suggesting that no viral marketing works. Instead, I was suggesting that the “mystery marketing” — the curious TV commercial or magazine ad with little more than a cryptic message and a Web address — may not work for very long.

    I’m a big believer in viral marketing — the real viral marketing, the kind that spreads like wildfire between friends and on social networks because it’s worth that attention. Viral marketing can absolutely work. But if you’re shooting for that marketing Holy Grail, I think it’s probably a waste your time to build up empty promises that will almost surely result in a high bounce rate and few conversions.

    Thanks for your thoughts, Al. And your well wishes :)

  6. Editor 'n Chief of No Where writes:

    Hi there Al! Great speech! [applause...the crowd goes wild...no]

    Very good Al!…you get a cookie!
    “…does not mean your insights apply to the 80%…”

    Bad Al…cookie removed!
    “…If your giving the advice you wrote to clients…”
    (AL!! Shouldn’t that be “you’re”?)

    Bad Al…you owe 2 cookies!
    “…but your not the market, your just a bright cookie …”
    (Whose your illiterate market Al? Shouldn’t that be a double “you’re”? Oh, and no pun intended on the cookie.)

    Good Al! …but you still owe 1 cookie…bad Al!
    “…and so me thinks your pronouncements …”

    I’m not putting my real name on this because I don’t want you to mar my blog with a bunch of “your” instead of “you’re” errors! KILLS ME! It’s kind of like using its instead of it’s or then instead of than! [shiver]

    Do you think the rules of good grammar don’t apply to you? Ah, I’ve proven you wrong.
    To use your phrase, “…forgive me if I say so, ARROGANT.”

    Lesson 1, proof read and make all needed corrections. It will save you undo embarrassment and the entertainment of others. :D

    btw…do you say “You welcome.”?
    Lesson 2, it’s “You’re welcome.” :)

  7. Linda Carmical writes:

    Virginia! Wow you struck a nerve with Al!

    Al, breath in…exhale…repeat. lol

    I totally got what you were saying and didn’t pick up on you feeling like viral marketing should go away. Even though I don’t agree to the extent your example expresses (easy on Criss Angel! There are times he’s “da man” hehe), I appreciate your perspective and see where you’re coming from. I absolutely hate it when I can’t tell what is being marketed…I don’t like it when the confusion sets in.

    It was cute at first Mr. Advertising Guy, but now just get to the point! Is there really a need to play out some series of “what the hell is this?” to build some climaxed product that’s only gonna piss me off? I’ll get aggravated after a bit and move on.

    WhatTheHell + Climaxed Product = Fail + Sale Lost = No $$

    Time for something new.

  8. Virginia Nussey writes:

    Thanks Linda :) I’ve gone over the numbers. Your math is spot on.

  9. Viral Marketing Agency writes:

    I actually had the opportunity to tune into the program when it aired, but at the time, I didn’t correlate this magic trick with viral marketing. Although you say the audience is catching on, viral marketing strategies aren’t slowing down in the social media platform, but only creating the potential for exponential growth in the message’s exposure.



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