Saturday, June 5, 2004

Viral Marketing is for Superheroes

Viral marketing online is now so commonplace we often overlook it. Viral marketing is usually described as marketing that depends on a high pass-along rate from person to person. If a large percentage of recipients forward something to a significant number of friends, the overall growth snowballs very quickly and the marketing is broadly seen as successful.

Often times, these campaigns take on a humorous slant. While websites like Hotmail and Yahoo really made viral marketing what it is today, more entertaining campaigns have better captured the popular imagination. Reebok’s “Terrible Terry Tate” (critiqued in issue 2003.07) and Trojan Condom’s “Trojan Games 2004”represent an entertainment trend in viral marketing that has spawned not only large scores of user visits, but also a genuine fan base.

And when viral marketing works, it works big. Success stories from Reebok and BMW, in particular, abound in marketing trade publications and online case studies. But when it goes wrong it can be crippling.

Ford’s recent Sportka ad that – rightly or wrongly – was distributed as a viral campaign backfired on the US automaker. The ad, designed for a UK audience, featured the sunroof of the Sportka decapitating a curious tabby cat. Bad publicity abounded, animal-rights groups complained, and Ford and its advertising firm apologized and pointed fingers at each other.

American Express recently launched an ambitious and impressive online video viral marketing campaign that has the advertising community and millions of Internet users abuzz. German automaker BMW pioneered the use of online videos in product promotion in 2001 with their series of short web-based films made by top-name directors like Ang Lee and Jerry Bruckheimer. Like the BMW films, American Express’s online film features big names and entertaining content with a subtle product message.

In late May, American Express launched the second in a series of four-minute webisodes featuring Jerry Seinfeld and DC Comic’s Superman. Found exclusively at "Hindsight is 20/20" is the second installment from "The Adventures of Seinfeld and Superman." The first webisode, "A Uniform Used to Mean Something," set in New York City, debuted on the American Express website in March 2004.

Both webisodes were co-written by Seinfeld and directed by acclaimed film director Barry Levinson (Rain Man).

"Hindsight is 20/20," shot on location in Death Valley, CA, follows Superman and Seinfeld as the two set out on a cross-country road trip in one of Seinfeld's legendary vintage cars. As in the first installment, the two continuously banter, engaging viewers in a hilarious snapshot of the unique friendship between comedian and Kryptonian. While Superman nears his wit's end trying to open a pesky pistachio and deflects questions from tourists about Green Lantern, Seinfeld tries to get The Man of Steel to reveal the origin of his moniker. When trouble ensues in the middle of the desert, it is Seinfeld who saves the day by employing Roadside Assistance, one of many services provided to American Express Cardmembers.

In "A Uniform Used to Mean Something," Seinfeld's DVD player is snatched. Superman apprehends the thief but fails to catch the machine when the thief tosses it back. It crashes and breaks. No problem, Seinfeld says. His American Express card will enable him to exchange it. As the video ends, an ad for the card appears.

"The first webisode proved to be a great way to build consumer interest in our brand, and demonstrate our Card benefits in a lighthearted way," said John Hayes, American Express' Chief Marketing Officer. "We are excited to present the sequel so fans can enjoy more comedic adventures of Seinfeld and Superman."

Visitors to are treated to a unique interactive experience: The cozy living room of a New York City apartment, complete with a view of the Empire State Building, candid snapshots of Seinfeld and his superhero pal, a clickable Broadway show program (a very entertaining sing along), and more. In addition to viewing "A Uniform Used to Mean Something" and "Hindsight is 20/20," visitors will find behind-the-scenes footage from the making of both webisodes and content related to American Express Cardmembership.

According the American Express, the campaign has three objectives: branding; getting people to sign up for American Express cards; and helping those with cards understand what's available to them.

But a fourth objective appears to have been in mind, if left unstated: to make great entertaining films. And we’re not the only ones who think so.

"A Uniform Used to Mean Something" launched March 29. For seven-days thereafter the American Express site had nearly 2.4 million at-work visitors, a rise of 31 percent over the previous week. At home, the site received nearly 1.7 million visitors during that same period, compared to 1.5 million the previous week, according to Nielsen//Net Ratings.

The "The Adventures of Seinfeld and Superman" sub-site was visited by an average of 19,500 users each day between March 30 and April 7, peaking on April 7, with about 32,000 visitors, according to comScore Networks. By April 12, there had been over a million visits to the sub-site.

American Express is promoting the online campaign via sponsored links on Google, postcards, wrapped newspapers, and15-second teasers running on cable and network TV during Seinfeld reruns and primetime lineups. On April 16, 2004 thousands of LidRocks, tiny DVDs of the Seinfield/Superman video atop of soda lids, were distributed in New York movie theaters for four weeks. A second LidRock campaign is to follow for “Hindsight”.

Matt Lauer interviewed Seinfeld and Superman on the Today Show March 30; Seinfeld also appeared on Jon Stewart's late night Daily Show on April 5. Traffic to the American Express site spiked after both appearances.

But American Express was not satisfied, further expanding it’s campaign: In May, "A Uniform Used To Mean Something," aired on NBC before the encore performance of the Friends finale. For a week in June, the same webisode aired on TBS following Sex and the City. In addition, TBS aired a television sneak preview of the second webisode, "Hindsight is 20/20," the week of June 20 to direct viewers to the American Express website. fb

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