Why viral ad campaigns work

Viral ad campaigns and “leaked” information should be evil. They make fans feel preyed upon for their predictability, and stupid for being so excitable.

But man, do they get the job done.

Marvel’s “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.,” a new live-action television show set to air on ABC, is just the latest show or movie to use the advertising technique. Along with its first promo trailer, short videos under 20 seconds long have been popping up depicting a variety of things related to the Marvel universe and the S.H.I.E.L.D. agency. The “surveillance” videos are allegedly being posted on a blog called Rising Tide, which aims to uncover the truth about S.H.I.E.L.D.

That info alone suggests an interesting layer to the television show, indicating that such an organization will likely be a staple in the series. But viral marketing doesn’t just stop there; the blog actually exists, and it looks just like what one would expect of a blog dealing with a government agency. Allegedly their videos keep being taken down from an outside source, and they are angry about it and determined to continue their work.

That kind of depth in a marketing campaign brings out the best in fans and usually accomplishes its goal of raising interest.

Why should we feel bad about ourselves for falling for these ploys? Because we’re predictable, and the marketing companies know that as soon as we’re interested, they can count on us to either purchase their product or tune in to their show. We should feel bad because the campaigns trick us into feeling like we’re being invited to join in rather than being asked to watch the show or movie to earn its producers money. They trick us into feeling like whatever reality their product exists in is real, even if we know better.

That’s what the many viral ad campaigns did for the “Paranormal Activity” movies as well. For instance, in preparation for the second movie, several short viral videos were “leaked” onto the Internet. Some had hidden images, others had hidden video footage viewers had to scroll sideways to unlock, and still others had deleted or alternate scenes from the movie. One viral bit included a phone number for the home the first movie took place in, and any curious fans who dialed it heard an answering machine message for the couple. The movies are supposed to be scary, and their viral campaign tried to keep the creep factor high and succeeded.

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Viral ad campaigns are meant to capture our attention and entertain us. They are meant to hold our interest long enough for the product to be obtainable, so that we’ll feel compelled to partake.

They work because we want to be entertained. We want something to ponder over and investigate, we want to feel like we’re special, like we have to unravel a mystery.

The latest mystery is “S.H.I.E.L.D.,” which comes out sometime this fall. I personally don’t care about the secrets of this fictional organization though. There’s only one question I want Rising Tide to try to answer for us.

How the heck did Agent Coulson survive “The Avengers?”