Viral Marketing? I'm Not Laughing.

In his blog post Where's the Beef?, Marc Hausman gives some suggestions on how a company can successfully execute viral marketing. While I agree with most of his concepts, his first one irked me. "Embrace humor," he advises. I strongly disagree with this.

What's the quote? "Consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds"? Well, humor is the goblin of lazy marketers. For years now marketers have thrown funny at the wall and hoped it would stick. Well funny marketing videos feel old to me. I think good viral marketing is engaging. For the Dark Knight film opening in July, Warner Bros. has executed a full viral marketing scheme centered around the Joker. The psychopathic clown sends fans on scavenger hunts or makes them play puzzles online. The reward is fictional newspaper pages from Gotham, new teaser posters, or even an early glimpse at a new trailer. This strategy engages fans, puts them in a world, and doesn't use trite humor.

Last week the groundbreaking video game Grand Theft Auto 4 was released. It takes place in a fictionalized New York City called Liberty City. In the months leading up to the release, all across NYC small wanted posters for the criminal main character Niko or other supporting characters were posted on traffic light and telephone poles. These posters effectively teased the game in a compelling manner — fans were stoked to see the game world of Liberty City made more real and those who did not know of the game were curious and sought answers from more savvy friends.

Viral marketing should be more than a funny video on YouTube. That concept is years old — just look at this archival blog entry from yours truly. I completely agree with Hausman's assertion that companies should keep trying viral campaigns, that even if one out of ten succeed then that is an achievement. But marketers must go beyond trying different levels of humor and should try to truly mix things up. People need substance and not just lighthearted fare.

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  • Chase Wegmann

    Kevin you are right on! Humor can be a double-edged swordas Thomas spoke of and, for that reason, should be used sparingly as its successful interpretation is incumbent on the person taking it in. The same thing that will make you laugh can make another cry. Engaging people is de rigueur in any viral marketing campaign.

  • Marc Hausman


    You raise some excellent points and Thomas' comment more accurately captures what I intended to imply in my suggestion to "embrace humor."

    I have been writing extensively about what I refer to as the "3Es" of social media/PR: education, engagement and entertainment. When used appropriately, humor is a means of grabbing attention and entertaining.

    Here's a link to my more extensive post on this topic:


  • Thomas Grounds

    Kevin - you make a good point - but do you think that the use of humor is directly related to the subject of the viral campaign? The two examples that you provided here don't lend themselves to humor (IMHO)based on the subject matter or the product that the viral marketing is intended to promote. When I read Marc's post, I interpreted humor as 'have some fun' rather than funny-ha-ha. You can almost argue that your second example supports that to a certain extent in the use of the Wanted posters - having fun with it.

    I also feel that true 'Humor' is a double-edged sword because different people find different things funny - like music - not everyone has the same taste.

    Just an observation from the sidelines.