Random Thoughts on the Word “Viral.”

If one more person tells me they want something to “go viral” I think I shall retire to my chambers and weep softly until dusk.

“Go viral”? Please.

Take the Beatles. The Beatles didn’t hold a meeting in the 3rd floor conference room and decide, “Okay, we’re going to ‘go famous.’  Ideas, people?”

No. They became famous by roasting our minds with rock and roll. The mind-roasting came first, the famous next.

So, can we please retire the word viral? And perhaps, even temporarily, use that old stand-by term “earned media”? It may not be as poetic but it hits closer to the truth. It describes how a good idea earns its coverage by being cool enough that people actually talk about it and pass it on to friends.

This is basically the idea behind a notion (attributed to Crispin), that goes like this: “What is the press release of your idea?”

What a marvelous way to think about advertising. Don’t show me the TV spot. In fact, don’t show me any advertising ideas. Show me an idea worth advertising. An idea worth advertising. Such a key difference.

What is the press release of your idea?

Show me an idea that – on paper – is interesting. Show me an idea that is so fun, so unusual, so….so somethin’, that the idea is in and of itself worth tellin’ to a journalist.

Now that…. that is the way to get to some stuff that’ll “go viral.”


A few additional observations on “viral videos”, if you please.

The word “viral” comes with some baggage, probably from its use in describing popular YouTube videos.

Here the word actually makes some sense, describing as it does the ex post facto popularity of a given video. What makes something popular is a subject that’s always intrigued me, so I recently studied several sites that rank the view-counts of popular online videos. The results were not encouraging.

Those of you who’ve seen the movie Idiocracy can probably guess where I’m going here. In the stupid future envisioned in this movie, the world’s most popular TV show was called “Ow! My Balls!” – a user-generated reality show full of accident videos, not unlike the worst of America’s Funniest Home Videos.

Well, a quick study of the view-counts revealed that if you want viewers, show animals. Show otters holding hands, show sleepwalking dogs, piano-playing cats, and prairie dogs givin’ the evil eye. Hot on the heels of cute animals is cute babies: talking babies, Charlie bit my finger babies, and laughing babies.


Perhaps that ancient advertising maxim, the one about how effective ads need babies or puppies … perhaps it’s true? They sure get the most clicks. If it is indeed true, again I find myself getting weepy.

Also depressing was the popularity of videos featuring people misbehaving, getting hurt, or doing something embarrassing that we can all have a good laugh at. People having bike accidents, the swearing Winnebago salesman, the Star Wars fightin’ kid, the angry German kid screaming at his computer, the bad sportscaster (Boom-goes-the-dynamite), the mentally challenged Miss Teen South Carolina, and of course Christian Bale and Bill O’Rielly screaming at people off-camera.

These were the videos with some of the very highest view-rates. The world of Idiocracy? It’s here. Such were my thoughts as I inched along the ledge outside my office window looking at the street below.

Eventually, however, I crawled back in my window. There were enough encouraging signs to buoy my spirits. Like the popularity of President Obama’s YouTube message. Or Randy Pausch’s Last Lecture. Or Christian the lion meeting his old friends again. These too were some of the most viewed videos.

Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised. All of life is a bell curve, isn’t it? For every  America’s Funniest Home Videos on television, there’s a Breaking Bad. Okay, maybe it’s not 50-50, but I just need to remind myself, “Walk towards the light. Walk towards the light.”


  1. Luke, I think another thing to consider is a lot of marketing folk are attracted to “viral” because there seems to be no/little cost associated with the most popular videos. “A cat riding a Roomba! Awesome! How much will a trained cat cost us? We could just tape it down.”

    For my inspiration in this world I look to the OkGo videos.

    • Yo Bill: I still remember your comment at SxSW, about embracing low fidelity. Smart stuff dude.

  2. “What is the press release of your idea?”
    That campaigns have ideas anymore is a novel idea. A few game changers to me:
    “Hi, I’m a Mac” Apple
    “Hi, We’re sorry we made crappy Pizza”- Domino’s
    honest voices, saying honest things.
    Gotta go back to early ad agency slogan for McCann- “Truth well told.”
    Stuff that’s honest goes viral.
    The rest- goes out the other ear.
    The Beatles were honest- everyone else was trying too hard 🙂
    Thanks Luke.

  3. Amen to the gent above me – apart from (yeah, sorry) the McCann strap – I just don’t buy it. The promise is fine, the delivery a few miles away yet.

    This post however, on one of my pet hates – striving for / claiming viral status – brilliant. One of those ‘Wish I’d…’ oh you get the picture.

    When will people realise that viral is not born of a suit’s request but an amazing, engaging idea?

  4. bill, a big irony is that maybe the first really succesful group of ads to go viral where the bmw films. gets one thinking about low-cost “virals”.

  5. just remember, Obama is a politician. you think he gives 12 speeches a day for his health? the man has his own logo and slogan. the presidency has become a brand, selling de’mock’racy.

  6. Luke –

    I used to work at Hallmark Cards and when the list of top selling cards was published I was always appalled at all the sappy crap that was a the top. There is no accounting for taste – I’m just sayin’ – GET OFF THE LEDGE.

    “I want it to go Viral” will be retired soon enough I think. I have a strong feeling that we are finally about to going back to integrated well designed strategy over tactics very soon.

    That’s my hope at least.

    btw – thanks for the mention on your Blogroll. Hopefully we’ll meet someday – I missed SxSW this year.

    • Yo Bruce: Am off the ledge. I just get cranky sometimes. You guys rock at permishtosuck. Blog on.

  7. Would it be handy to think of ‘Viral’ as more of a process or an effect rather than a genre?

  8. Keep posting stuff like this i really like it

  9. would it be possible to translate your website into spanish because i have difficulties of speaking to english, and as there are not many pictures on your website i would like to read more of what you are writting .

  10. I must concur with your MESSAGE. Very well written and inspirational!

  11. Viral advertising is the best way to reach today’s youth. You need to advertise on facebook.

  12. My wife and i have been now relieved when Jordan could round up his investigation by way of the ideas he gained in your web site. It is now and again perplexing just to find yourself offering secrets and techniques the others may have been selling. And we grasp we have the writer to give thanks to for this. Those illustrations you made, the simple blog menu, the friendships you will help to promote – it’s all excellent, and it is making our son and us know that that content is thrilling, and that is really serious. Thanks for the whole lot!

    • Thanks very much for your kind words. I appreesh.

  13. Hey! I simply wish to give a huge thumbs up for the good info you may have here on this post. I might be coming back to your weblog for extra soon.



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Luke Sullivan

Author, speaker, and ad veteran available to recharge, reinvigorate, and refocus marketing, advertising, and branding firms.

I give a hugely energetic series of presentations on innovation, creativity, branding, and marketing. I spent 32 years in the trenches of advertising (at agencies like Martin, GSD&M, and Fallon) and I’ve put everything I learned into my book, Hey Whipple, Squeeze This. But for me nothing beats taking the message out and speaking to living breathing audiences at clients, agencies, and conferences. You can book me on the button below.