What can a viral do?


I’ve been reading a lot of Faris Yakob’s stuff recently, and his latest post on futurecasting throws up some key questions about how viral advertising works, and more specifically what it does rather than what it is. In the Boards discussion between himself, David Pescovitz and Rishad Tobaccowala, Faris says that:

I’ve been talking recently about shifting away from the idea of virality, which is really unhelpful, to “spreadability”, as Henry Jenkins, the director of the MIT Comparative Media Studies Program, coins it. When we talk about making a viral in my industry, we mean, “Let’s make something that self-propagates and hope it gets free impressions and saves money.” That idea of self-propagation is ridiculous because it requires people to pass things along, so we have to ask why people do that. What’s the social emphatic function of pushing content to my networks and why would I do that? You can do that a lot easier by sending a video clip to five people than a postcard-style letter saying, “How’s things?”

This makes really good sense. Comparing an online video to a virus is disingenuous because the video itself does not possess its own agency – natural viruses need to spread to survive, and will…

employ many means to do so by themselves, whereas a video must be passed from one person to another to spread across the internet. Therefore, whilst a virus is active, content is passive and requires an active agent to be added to the equation.

This got me thinking about gift giving and Marcel Mauss’ work on the gift, and specifically his study of Potlatch in (what we might call) primitive societies. Mauss basically discovered that barter was not the original form of exchange practiced in society before goods were reduced to values of a lowest common denominator (e.g gold). Instead, goods flowed between individuals and tribes via an intricate system of gift giving, known as Potlatch. Gifts, in this system, were effectively given from one person to the next in order to shame their recipient, a process which would by proxy place the recipient underneath the giver in a social hierarchy. The gifts themselves, whether they consisted of food, weapons, or even women, were considered to be imbued with the soul of the giver, whose presence would haunt the recipient and place him under the shadow of the giver’s name. In this instance, as the recipient, the only way to rid oneself of the debt of the gift was to give back more than you had received, in order to establish your rank again above the original giver. In this way, Mauss established anthropologically the fundamentally antagonistic nature of the gift, but more importantly, its essentially active nature.

To bring it back to viral advertising, Mauss’ work suggests that when a video is passed from one web user to another, the video itself is relatively unimportant – what matters is the social relation engendered by the transference itself. Sending a video to someone else also necessarily implies that you like it – in this way, the video itself becomes imbued with your essence, venturing out as a flag bearer displaying your colours as its distributer (this is also as true if you dislike the video and send it out to mock it). A video that successfully spreads via users across the internet, therefore, will first of all be concerned with allowing its viewers to say something about themselves by distributing it, rather than being concerned about saying something about any brand attachment (even better if viewers can remix it themselves to become more intrinsically linked with its content). Viral videos might therefore be considered as potential social catalysts, able to bring about conversations and engender common ground, rather than being simple objects used to transfer a message from brand to consumer. These conversations, however, will be intrinsically rooted in the brand itself, even if not stated explicitly, so brands should not worry that their voice will be lost if they don’t shout at the top of their lungs. Instead, by providing content as a platform for people to construct social relations upon, brands may be able to anchor themselves firmly within these social relations themselves.

Just as a little example to try and bring this little ramble together and explain what I’m saying, this is one of my favourite virals ever –

The reason it’s a really important example for me isn’t just that it’s a brilliant ad (which is, admittedly, a great start), and that Reebok let the content do its own talking instead of throwing their name all over it, but that it was introduced to me by one of my good mates in my first year of Uni when we first met each other. Whenever I think about Adam, one of the first things that invariably pops into my head is Terry Tate, and being drunken idiots shouting “And do I like what I do? HELL YEAH!” at people. Reebok, in this way, provided one of the platforms for our friendship, and will be inextricably bound to it for as long as we are friends, and this is the kind of lasting brand work that goes beyond mere advertising, that burrows its way deeply into the associations that exist in your memories and between signifiers and signifieds in your unconscious. This is what brands can be when they allow themselves to be shared.


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One Response to “What can a viral do?”

  1. faris Says:

    yes yes and yes!

    you should read the source: jenkins:



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