Viral campaigns How Advertising Becomes Viral

Viral campaigns
Viral campaigns | Photo (detail): © Jürgen Priewe -

When marketing works like a “virus” and “content” spreads all on its own, we all become advertising campaign aides. Sometimes without even noticing it.

“Super power! Super strong! Super market! Super hot!” An advertising slogan that, at first glance, does not sound particularly imaginative – if you are only reading it. When, however, the same lines are sung by an older man with a white beard who prances with surprising ease through a supermarket, bathes in milk as he lies uninhibited in a bathtub and slips unsolicited into the sitting room of a scantily clad woman, they can become a viral super success.

Edeka Supergeil (

The Supergeil (ie. super hot) clip of the German supermarket Edeka spread with breakneck speed through the social networks, thus making it an excellent example of a “viral campaign” and “content marketing”. These terms describe a new form of advertising. “Viral” refers to the virus-like propagation of advertising content in the Net, especially by word-of-mouth distribution in social networks. A viral advertising campaign works like this: the promotional content, in this case the Supergeil clip featuring the dancing grandpa, is so appealing and well-made that those who discover it on the Net recommend it to their friends on Facebook or Twitter. The thus addressed users are likewise inspired and share the link with their own circle of digital acquaintances. The promotional content “goes viral”. The medium in question need not always be a video clip: info graphics, video games and animations can also enjoy viral successes.

Some brands hide themselves

The success of a viral campaign stands or falls with the conveying of content: “Advertisers understand that the main thing is to deliver quality content, without seeming to advertise. This is also good because the constant emphasis on your own brand today is irritating, counter-productive and old-fashioned”, says Yvette Schwerdt of the German-American marketing agency Made-to-Market.

The new spirit of advertising arose in the “mother country of marketing”, the USA. But content marketing is also becoming increasingly important in Germany. “The magnitude of sharings, however, can’t be compared”, says Schwerdt. Viral advertising campaigns from the United States are shared and passed on by a substantially larger audience. A fundamental advantage probably lies in the English language. Thanks to it, American advertising campaigns can enjoy viral successes worldwide. German campaigns cannot rely upon the same international attention, but more and more companies in Germany are discovering the new advertising form for their use.

Viral success is not always advertising success

Time and again there are advertising clips that are successful on the internet in which, however, the advertised product remains in the background or even hidden, so that the advertising message fails to be recognised by most users. An example of this is the music video La La La by Shakira, in which the yoghurt brand Activia and its advertising message are faded in only at the beginning and the end of the clip. “I can imagine that this sensationally successful clip raised the brand recognition for Activia only slightly: the link between the content and the brand isn’t clear”, says Schwerdt.

Some brands make no secret of their participation in a clip: at the beginning of 2014 the video First Kiss caused a sensation. Purportedly, it shows randomly selected people ardently kissing completely unknown other people and carrying out their task passionately. Only a few days later was it announced that the clip had been produced by a fashion brand, which had concealed their part in the video.
First Kiss (Youtube)

That some companies try to make advertising look as much unlike advertising as possible rests on a misunderstanding, says Björn Ognibeni, consultant for digital communication. “Many mistakenly think that people don’t like to watch commercials. But that’s not true: people like to watch good content, even if it’s advertising”, says Ognibeni.

Check lists can be misleading

The question remains: what makes promotional content “good” content? “Above all, it helps to trigger strong emotions. If the audience laughs aloud, gently sheds a few tears, sighs, moans or cries out surprised, the chances are good that they will share the spot”, says Schwert, summing up the requirements. But the communication consultant Ognibeni warns against “success check lists”: “Even if you can try to reduce the success factors to a few, this can be misleading. Successful is what is relevant to the target group – and this may look very different according to interests”. Even sober info graphics can spread successfully as long as their content is surprising and innovative.

Yet not even the best content spreads all by itself: “That’s a myth”, says Ognibeni. In fact, the propagation of many viral campaigns is initially helped financially. “About 20 per cent of advertising budgets is invested in ‘seeding’”. Seeding refers to the targeted and financially supported dissemination in social networks – for example, by paid-for posting on Facebook or recommendations on YouTube. After the seeding, the advertising must then make its own way, and in the best case attack like a highly contagious virus, at least for a short time.