If the eyeballs delivered by the viral nonsense coming from Burger King is considered marketing, then so should a car wreck.
Various campaigns that riff on the Whopper theme -- "Virgins," "Freakout," and "Sacrifice" -- have proven beyond doubt that they can get people's attention. Funny video clips, culturally-insensitive creative, or a click that'll virtually deny a hamburger to a Facebook name and thereby earn a coupon for a free, real burger...there's been a torrent of smart, off-the-wall content originating from the company's ad agency, Crispin Porter & Bogusky.
The only problem is that nobody can connect any of it to sales. Not even close.
In the study of evolution, there’s a mechanism that allows a species to adapt so completely and exclusively to an ecosystem that it'll be unable to live in any other; worse, even a slight change in those otherwise comfortable environs will amount to a catastrophic challenge to its existence.
I think the Whopper campaigns -- going back to the work the company did for its creepy mascot -- evidence just such development.
The best, if not the only, thing that anybody can say about these viral/social media campaigns is that they break through the clutter. That's always been the challenge for advertising, even when there was less clutter to break through. In branding's heyday, earning consumer attention was often based on simply interrupting theme. Media was one-way and there weren't many channels (or newspapers, magazines, or radio stations) to chose from, so consumers literally couldn’t escape the commercials.
But bothering people was never considered an accomplishment, was it? Nobody got paid for successfully yelling fire in a crowded room.
Branding and marketing had to sell stuff, which meant using those precious moments gained via interruption to deliver information relevant to buying.
How is it that we now look at marketing and expect the exact opposite?
It's as if the best social media campaigns are those that sell absolutely nothing, but otherwise somehow contribute to the esoteric, absolute value of branding...something so vitally important that it can't be measured by such inconsequential metrics as, well, sales?
My gut tells me that 2009 will be the year that the ad industry comes to terms with this disconnect. Not necessarily because it wants to, but because a crappy economy is going to make it ever-harder to tolerate such non-results results. The chattering class of advocates for the stuff will have to finally put up or shut up, and leave their made-up metrics behind. Selling isn't a dirty word, and it can’t be wholly left out of the new media marketing equation.
If the junk coming from Burger King is celebrated as smart marketing, then so should a car wreck. Both accomplish pretty much the same thing for businesses.