8 Commercials that Went Viral (and Why They Worked)
Streaming services has reduced the number of commercials viewers-- particularly viewers in the sacred 18 to 49 demographic-- see on television. Yet, the new paradigm has in no way reduced the efficacy or popularity of commercials. Indeed, ad companies have come to rely on consumers themselves to spread the message.
In other words, they went viral.
Although there may not be a way to guarantee that a commercial will go viral, the ones that have share a few common traits. First and foremost, they manage to connect to consumers in memorable, effective manner. Ads can take a number of approaches to get to the mind and hearts of their potential consumers. Humor, empathy, and even a controlled sense of rage can be equally effective.
Take a look at these commercials below and find some inspiration for maybe creating your own YouTube video to be shared across your business social sites.
Consumers should feel that the commercial echoes some aspect of their feelings and experiences. This ad for Dollar Shave Club exaggerates the everyday frustration some consumers feel in stores that complicate the purchasing process:
The connection is made through a sense of shared frustration. The company recognizes that asking a store employee to unlock a case can make a customer feel inconvenienced or even persecuted. This ad also tells consumers that it understands how they feel, and that it is on their side.
And as a bonus, the company does nothing to belittle its audience. While some ads for personal hygiene products can play on insecurity, this ad never stoops to criticizing consumers. Instead, it presents its product as a necessity and tells consumers the message they want to hear-- that they deserve a purchasing experience devoid of locks and tasers.
Appealing to the emotions of your audience is a great way to make a connection. While fear is generally not the most useful emotion to appeal to when marketing consumer products, it can be absolutely necessary when discussing danger. But a good campaign won't focus on fear exclusively. Instead, it will recognize that the audience still consists of people who have their own interests and priorities.
The video below is just an example of appealing to a targeted audience based on their interests:
While the ad is about the dangers of applying makeup while driving, it does not treat makeup as a problem in and of itself. Volkswagen collaborated with YouTuber Nikkie de Jager, a popular and respected member of the online makeup community. Including such a personality shows that Volkswagen did its research and recognizes that applying makeup takes knowledge, skill, artistry, and focus. So much so that makeup should only be applied when it can be the exclusive focus of the wearer's attention. Other tasks like driving are too much of a distraction.
Though the crash itself is shocking and effectively conveys the danger of mixing artistry with driving, I believe this particular video went on to win a Viral Video Award because of the respect and empathy it showed toward the community it was targeting. It understands why viewers like makeup and like learning how to apply it by watching talented artists like Nikkie de Jager.
If YouTube has taught us anything, it's that regardless of how different people are, we are nevertheless united as a species by our universal love of cute animals. The more cute animals, the better. And if those cute animals just happen to be friends, well . . .
Smartphone ads too often consist of smug comparisons to their competitors. With this ad, Android managed to connect to viewers on multiple levels. Certainly, the universal love of cute animals helps, but the ad also evokes nostalgia and a desire for a better world. The accompanying music, a song called "Oo-De-Lally" by Roger Miller, is featured in Disney's animated feature Robin Hood, a film that remains popular among children and adults alike, and features animal friendship quite prominently.
Perhaps most importantly, the idea that animals who are so biologically different can still be friends is inspiring. This commercial makes people recognize the beauty of being different. It further implies that no division between people is so overwhelming that it can't be broached by love. This is heavy material for a phone commercial, but the video evokes lightness, joy, and connectivity.
On a more subliminal note, the commercial is a response to criticism that phones and other electronic devices have a negative impact on in-person interaction. Instead of showing people playing 2048 or texting each other, the ad focuses on the bonds shared by the animals and encourages its audience to "Be together," as in, physically present in the lives of loved ones.
As much as we love animal friendships, stories about the love shared by animals and their humans are just as, if not more, popular. Kleenex managed to evoke the depth of this bond and create a great need for its products in one fell swoop:
There is a good deal of pathos, and even anger, in the story of a dog hit by a reckless, and apparently heartless, driver. Many of us have lost animals to the open road, and more of us encounter reckless drivers on a daily basis. It would have been easy for Kleenex to play up these aspects of Chance's story, and fulfill their goal of producing a million wet eyes.
But Kleenex instead subverts expectations by focusing on Chance's adoption and current, happy, fulfilling, meaningful life. This in turn allows the commercial to make an effort to work against the the silencing affect that being differently-abled can have on people and animals. Out of fear, and sometimes politeness, paralysis and its affects are still considered taboo topics. This ad shows that Chance and Michael, travel, love, and otherwise behave like all the other furbabies and pet parents out there. They face similar challenges, but face them and conquer them as a team.
One of the most effective things about this commercial is that it focuses on storytelling rather than Kleenex as a product. While one of Chance's owners does use a tissue to blot her eyes, she makes no comment about how soft the tissue is, or how her experience with Chance made her realize how important tissues are to pet owners and paralysis survivor advocates everywhere. Instead, the commercial tells their story, tells viewers who made the video, and leaves it at that. The near-ubiquity of this commercial on social media shows the power of leaving things unsaid.
Companies that align themselves with equality and social justice have produced some remarkable ads in recent years-- remarkable in terms of aesthetics, connectivity, and popularity. The #LikeAGirl commercial focused on linguistic microaggressions that can have a seemingly permanent negative impact on the way that grown men and women view femininity. To contrast the negativity, Always interviewed young girls and inspired its audience with the result:
Though this commercial was featured prominently during the Super Bowl, it made an even bigger splash, going viral on social media and regular media alike. To date, it has been viewed online nearly 60 million times.
Like the razor ads referenced above, the Always commercial makes no attempt to shame viewers into buying its products. Certainly, some viewers might feel a bit of shame in having used demeaning language in the past, but this commercial aims more at instilling its audience with a challenge: to treat femininity with respect, and to raise a new generation to feel proud of fighting, playing, talking, running, and simply being #LikeAGirl.
Placing the ad in the Super Bowl showed first that making commercials for a television audience is still a very effective way to advertise products. But because so many men watch the Super Bowl, the placement sent a bigger message-- that although Always makes products almost exclusively for women, all genders are responsible for ensuring that children grow up respecting each other and respecting themselves. As such, the ad was empowering to everyone.
The next commercial also focused on young girls, and while a lawsuit over the company's right to use a Beastie Boys song garnered a lot of attention at the time, the ad nevertheless retains its initial charm:
The commercial depicts a Rube Goldberg machine created by and for girls who are passionate about engineering. The dynamic, visually enthralling properties of the Rube Goldberg device elicit a sense of nostalgia in older viewers, especially those of us who grew up playing MouseTrap or watching Animaniacs.
Because while engineering is a vital profession that is fundamentally tied to human progress, there are few instances where it is depicted as a source of fun. This video captures that aspect of childhood-- of regarding even the most technical, mathematically challenging tasks as adventures.
So while the commercial does note that many toys designed for girls are not necessarily career-focused, I believe its power lies not in its attempt to level the playing field (possibly with a Rube Goldberg device), but in its honest and solution-based approach to childhood emotions. The kids in the video are angry that the products and entertainment allegedly geared toward them runs counter to their interests. But they don't linger in frustration; instead they come up with a creative solution to the problem and celebrate their skills and intelligence.
Speaking of engineering, Blendtec's Will It Blend? commercials been a staple of YouTube for years, and it's easy to see why:
The retro editing and music are a big part of the appeal here, as the commercial simultaneously emulates and mocks traditional infomercials. But the biggest appeal here is likely the fact that many simply like watching order descend into chaos. There is something innately satisfying about watching a pristine, shiny object turn into a pile of powdery shrapnel.
Part of this has to do with frustrations many feel toward technology. The film Office Space worked for similar reasons-- because electronic devices are supposed to make our lives easier, but often computers take hours to install updates, phones fail to transmit texts, and printers use two pages to print out TPS cover sheets. So watching a blender decimate an ongoing source of frustration is an almost cathartic experience.
Of course, the Will It Blend? series doesn't limit itself to electronics. Blendtec has also blended rotisserie chickens, glowsticks, and even the contents of a Ford Fiesta. But the most popular videos tend to feature technology, and probably will in the future. Blendtec makes it products central to its videos, showcasing the blender's ability to, of course, blend, and to be an emotional outlet for viewers.
The last video combines a number of common factors in the videos above-- frustration with current business models, passion for change, nostalgia, catharsis, and workable solutions:
Like the Android commercial, this Chipotle ad features a song reminiscent of childhood; Fiona Apple's eerie cover of "Pure Imagination," a song featured prominently in the first film adaptation of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. That particular film feels at times like the factory is an update on Dante's work, with the naughty children receiving their just desserts , as one might expect in a film about a chocolate factory.
Chipotle takes advantage of the comparison by presenting the modern food industry as soulless enterprise, where workers and animals are abused. The Scarecrow character serves as a stand-in for modern consumers, many of whom have read Fast Food Nation, The Omnivore's Dilemma, or The Jungle. Consumers seeking out a kinder, more sustainable version of food were drawn to the concept of shunning the more disturbing aspects of modernity in favor of a simpler approach.
Like many of the other ads listed, this ad is less about promoting Chipotle's products and more about showing that the company agrees with consumers about the nature of modern food production. Indeed, the aim was not to promote sales, but to start a dialogue with consumers and businesses alike regarding the safety and sustainability of their industry.
Viewers identified with the Scarecrow character, but more, they appreciated a major company's willingness to discuss and address systemic flaws. While the aesthetic expertise involved in the Scarecrow commercial may have been reason enough to share it, it went viral because it presented a message that resonated with viewers.
Which viral commercial was your favorite and why? Comment below!