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Lame and lamer: The 10 dumbest viral marketing campaigns ever

Think viral marketing is a no-brainer? Check out these spectacular flops.

By Dan Tynan
August 13, 2008 12:00 PM ET

PC World - Sure, it looks easy enough. Post a video of yourself wiggling your butt on a Wii Fit, dancing your way across the globe or practicing your Jedi Knight moves, and presto -- you're the next Web sensation, swept along by the viral nature of the Internet.

But corporations, politicians and others who have attempted to manipulate the Net to their own ends have discovered that it isn't as easy as it appears. True viralness can't be manufactured, no matter how many phony blogs and tasteless videos you generate.

Whether you're selling Chevys, shilling for Cheetos or simply trying to rise above the noise, certain rules apply: Don't fake it. Don't pretend to be cool when you're not. And never underestimate the intelligence of the crowd or its sheer delight in exposing you as a fraud.

The following campaigns didn't follow these rules, earning them a permanent spot in the Marketing Hall of Lame.

10. Mike Gravel: "Rock"

Mike who? A 78-year-old former senator from Alaska running for president on the Cranky Old Guy platform was a long shot at best. Gravel hoped to overcome the odds using viral video, of which the most notable is titled simply "Rock." The video shows Gravel standing in front of a pond. He glares at the camera for 71 seconds, walks over to a rock the size of a soccer ball, heaves it into the water and then walks slowly off into the distance as ripples spread across the water. Is he angry at the camera, the rock or the fact that only 47 people voted for him? We'll never know. Needless to say, the words "President Mike Gravel" won't be escaping anyone's lips any time soon.

Lame: Hoping that YouTube would make people vote for you despite your not having held public office since 1981.

Lamer: Gravel's Shatneresque rendition of "Helter Skelter." Look out! He's coming down fast. Yes, he is.

9. Chevy Tahoe: Roll Your Own Commercial

When General Motors Corp. teamed up with NBC's The Apprentice to promote the Chevy Tahoe SUV in March 2006, somebody had a brilliant idea: Why not let viewers build their own commercials on the Web? Promotional spots on the show directed viewers to ChevyApprentice.com, where viewers could build ads using GM-supplied video and music and adding their own creative text. (That URL now just redirects you to the Tahoe site.)

But instead of loving paeans to urban assault vehicles, hundreds of videos portrayed the Tahoe as a gas guzzling, safety-challenged ego enhancement for environmentally irresponsible dorks with diminutive sexual organs. After a couple weeks of abuse, GM scrubbed the videos from its site, but many live on at YouTube. We don't know who came up with this brilliant idea, but we can guess what happened next. To quote Apprentice master Donald Trump, "You're fired!"

Lame: Allowing people to create their own marketing messages, and then being surprised when they do.

Lamer: Donald Trump's hair.

8. Cheetos' Orange Underground

Frito-Lay North America decided that its spokesfeline Chester Cheetah was getting stale. So last January, it hired ad firm Goodby, Silverstein & Partners to create a viral campaign to appeal to its core juvenile constituency -- and let the chips fall where they may.

The Orange Underground site features a deliberately scratchy video urging viewers to commit "random acts of Cheetos:" "Coat your fingers with Cheetos and leave your mark. On someone's back. Someone's desk. Wherever you like." It encouraged visitors to fill people's shoes with Cheetos, crush them inside someone's laptop or toss them into the dryer with someone else's laundry -- and then post videos of their dirty deeds online.

The company set up a blog, created a YouTube channel, took out full-page ads in USA Today and even assigned a minion to troll the blogosphere and post comments using the screen name "Cheeto1."

Fortunately for the world's laundry, almost no one noticed. Online brand consultant John Eick, purveyor of the So Good food blog, counted a grand total of 17 blogs talking about the campaign a month after it launched.

"The creators probably assumed a campaign with this level of creativity would go viral right away," he wrote. "Clearly, it didn't. ... Did they really expect people to start pulling crazy pranks with Cheetos? Who in their right mind is actually going to go out and buy 20 bags of Cheetos to pull pranks with?"

The verdict? Dangerously cheesy.

Lame: Encouraging juvenile pranks employing fake foodstuffs.

Lamer: The video of a teenager wandering through a supermarket with Cheetos stuck up his nose. That's one random act we didn't need to see.

7. Coors' Code Blue

Molson Coors Brewing Co.'s online adventures started with a beer commercial built around its new temperature-activated bottles. When the mountains on the Coors label changed color, excited Coors fans in the ad send "Code Blue" text messages to one another, indicating it's time for a cold one. The idea looked so cool on the commercials that Coors wanted people to do it in real life, until the company discovered that "text-messaging elaborate 'Code blue' alerts as shown in the commercial using mobile devices would not currently be technologically feasible" (according to The New York Times).

Instead, Coors poured money into the Web, creating Facebook and MySpace pages that allowed Coors fans to send "Code Blue" alerts to their pals. Apparently, Coors has never heard of Twitter.

Cold? Maybe. Cool? Not a chance.

Lame: Naming the campaign after the term used for hospital patients going into cardiac arrest. Maybe Coors should have included a free defibrillator with every six pack.

Lamer: Thinking that changing the colors on the label makes the beer taste better.

6. Sony: "All I Want for Xmas Is a PSP"

All Sony Corp. wanted for Christmas in 2006 was to create a little buzz for its handheld gaming platform. So its marketing company created a fake blog called "All I Want for Xmas Is a PSP," allegedly written by a teen named Charlie who's trying to get the parents of his pal Jeremy to pony up for a PSP. Bloggers who smelled a rat looked up the site's domain and found that it was registered to guerrilla marketing company Zipatoni (now called Rivet). The reaction was swift and brutal, and the site disappeared shortly thereafter.

How bad was the blog? To wit: "we started clowning with sum not-so-subtle hints to j's parents that a psp would be the perfect gift. we created this site to spread the luv to those like j who want a psp! [sic]"

It gets worse. Along with badly executed teen patois came a video of Charlie's cousin Pete rapping about why he too wants a PSP (when what he really needs is a job and maybe some hair plugs): "Games so crazy / they totally amaze me / gotta ask my mom for one / fo' shizzy."

Yet more evidence why any white person not named Eminem should not rap. Not now, not ever. Fo' shizzy.

Lame: Registering a fake blog under the name of a real marketing company.

Lamer: Allowing "Cousin Pete" to come within 50 yards of a video camera.

5. EBay: "Windorphins"

No, they're not antidepressants. EBay Inc.'s marketing geniuses dreamed up some blobby little cartoon characters to promote the site and the supposed endorphin rush you get when you win an eBay auction -- "win-dorphin," get it?

The original press release of July 2007 said, "We've all experienced that feeling you can only get on eBay -- you know, the excited rush you get when you win that item you really wanted at a great price? ... Well, we've had a scientific breakthrough! According to our official scientists -- after a lot of arduous, painstaking research -- it can be linked to a phenomenon called 'Windorphins.'"

Reprinted with permission from PCWorld.com. Story copyright 2012 PC World Communications. All rights reserved.
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