In a 1996 article for Fast Company, business author and academic Jeffrey Rayport wrote: “Think of a virus as the ultimate marketing program.”
“When it comes to getting a message out with little time, minimal budgets, and maximum effect, nothing on earth beats a virus,” Rayport explained. “Every marketer aims to have a dramatic impact on thinking and behavior in a target market; every successful virus does exactly that.”
Rayport, who currently serves as a faculty member in the Entrepreneurial Management Unit at Harvard Business School, is primarily credited with coining the term “viral marketing,” or “v-marketing,” as it was commonly known at the time.
During those early incarnations of the internet as we now know it, it seems almost impossible to fathom how prophetic Rayport’s words would become.
These days, viral marketing is inescapable—and in turn, increasingly jaded internet users have become more adept at spotting it. Some of the more successful modern viral marketing campaigns tend to entice users with a wink-wink, nudge-nudge approach. Brands such as Wendy’s and Moon Pie, in particular, have made notable strides by engaging users with irreverent social media accounts.
After all, who cares if you’re sharing or retweeting an account that shills frozen sandwich meat when Steak-umm is laying down mind-blowing existential truths?
Viral marketing, in its essence, is all about stealth. Not only do marketers need to advertise a product to people without them necessarily realizing it, but encourage them to like and share the content with others organically.
As noted in the 2019 Rivier University academic paper, the “History of Viral Marketing,” there’s no set formula that’s guaranteed to make a marketing campaign go viral. There are, however, some common traits that some of the most successful viral marketing campaigns have shared, such as evoking emotion, being entertaining or inspirational, providing an element of surprise, or containing helpful information.
The framework of the internet and how we process and share information has evolved exponentially since 1996 when the so-called information superhighway was filled with vast possibilities and wonder. To learn how we’ve come full circle, we’re looking back on some of the more notable attempts at viral marketing in those naïve, fledgling days of the internet.
How the first successful viral marketing web campaign came to be
Before Google launched Gmail in 2004, which would quickly become the preferred free email service for millions of users (and eventually, 1.5 billion by 2019), one web-based email client stood out from the pack. In the late ‘90s and early aughts, Hotmail was practically synonymous with “email” as a proprietary eponym, similar to brands like Band-Aid, Jell-O, and, well, Google—come to think of it.
But make no mistake, Hotmail’s astronomical rise in popularity was no accident.
When Hotmail commercially launched on July 4, 1996, the service was designed as a sort of “freedom” from ISP-based email, such as America Online, which required the user to log in from a designated web portal. Now, users could access their inboxes from anywhere in the world. And while that was a desirable enough feature, founders Sabeer Bhatia and Jack Smith included a Trojan Horse, of sorts, to help spread the word about their new email service.
Every email sent from Hotmail included the signature line: “Get your own free Hotmail at www.hotmail.com.” The gimmick proved to be an instant success. Within a year, the number of Hotmail users grew from 20,000 to 1 million.
By the summer of 1998, Hotmail boasted 25 million active email accounts, with an average rate of 125,000 new users signing up every day. In 2001, just five years after launching, the company had cornered 30 percent of the email market with a total of 86 million active users.
Though the success of Hotmail would ultimately turn out to be fleeting, internet marketers certainly took note of the strategy.
The Blair Witch Project stumbles upon the crossroads of digital marketing and online fandom
Unlike Hotmail, the popular 1999 horror film The Blair Witch Project became arguably the most successful viral marketing campaign of all time purely by chance.
Filmed on a shoestring budget of $35,000 by two novice, unknown filmmakers at the time, Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez, The Blair Witch Project went on to become a global phenomenon that raked in a mind-boggling $248 million when all was said and done. Through the concept of “found footage,” the film told the story of three “student filmmakers”—Heather Donahue, Michael C. Williams, and Joshua Leonard—who hiked into the Black Hills in Maryland and were never seen alive again.
Both Myrick and Sánchez had modeled the concept of the film around their shared love of myths and unsolved mysteries. However, in early attempts to market the spec through its fake mythology, the pair somewhat inadvertently blurred the line between fact and fiction—which ignited the internet in ways online fandom had never experienced up until that point.
“We made up these fake postcards, from Blair County, Maryland, (pretending) it was an actual, real place, and then we had these flyers that we sent out to investors,” Myrick told the Chicago Tribune in 1999. “It was like an invitation to go hunting at this resort in Blair, Maryland, and it had the zucchini festival that’s held up there every year, and by the way, visit the Blair Witch Museum.”
From there, Myrick and Sánchez cut together an eight-minute promotional reel to generate buzz in The Blair Witch Project, which they shared with John Pierson, creator and host of the indie filmmaking series Split Screen, which ran on IFC from 1997 to 2001.
Not only was Pierson blown away by the reel, but he was also immediately duped by the wholly conceived lore. “I said, ‘I can’t believe all of this. I’ve never heard about it,’” Pierson recalled telling Myrick in the same Tribune interview. “And he said, ‘John, we made it all up.’”
In addition to investing $10,000 in the movie, Pierson also ran two Blair Witch segments on Split Screen in 1997, leaving it up to the viewer to determine if the mystery was real or fake.
“I think John started to get a little concerned about the way he was playing it,” Michael Monello, a film school classmate who helped produce the project, told the Ringer in 2019. “And so at the end of the [second] segment, he says: ‘So are [these] guys pulling our leg or is there really a witch out in the woods of Maryland killing film students?”
Pierson directed viewers to SplitScreen.com for online discourse, and fans soon inundated the website with each subsequent airing of the episode. Finally, it got to the point that Pierson—fed up with the unwanted attention—suggested that Myrick and Sánchez’s production company, Haxan Films, launch a dedicated Blair Witch website to satisfy fans. By that point, the film was still being edited, but word of mouth was continuing to spread like wildfire.
Unfortunately, in 1998, the internet as we know it was in its infancy. And with YouTube still seven years in the future, the quality of online video streaming was dubious at best.
Without those tools at their disposal, the Haxan Films team instead cobbled together a website featuring enticing images and details from the story presented as evidence. Among these so-called pieces of evidence were rusty 16mm film cans and waterlogged Hi8 tapes that had supposedly been “found” by University of Maryland anthropology students, stills from the film that were labeled as photos released by the Frederick County Sheriff’s office, and even scanned pages of what they claimed was Heather’s journal, which was suggested to have been found “buried beneath a 100-year-old cabin in the woods.”
“I just started building the website. It was very crude and rudimentary, but it worked, because that’s what it was all about,” Sánchez told the Week in a 2015 oral history about the film. “A lot of the mythology was built by building the website. It got to the point where you had to fill in the gaps. The website had a mythology timeline to document what had happened in the whole case leading up to the kids’ disappearance, so I just wrote a lot of stuff.”
Suffice to say; the hype worked in their favor. When the film finally debuted at Sundance with a midnight premiere on January 25, 1999, Artisan Entertainment quickly snatched up the distribution rights for $1.1 million.
On April Fools’ Day, nearly four months before the film’s nationwide premiere, Artisan relaunched the website with additional bonus clues, as well as “leaking” the trailer on Ain’t It Cool News the following day. Artisan likewise launched a college screening tour to get The Blair Witch Project in front of eager, internet-savvy eyeballs in tandem with these efforts.
Over two decades later, The Blair Witch Project is still viewed as a basic formula for successful movie marketing. By leveraging online fandom and leaving strategically placed breadcrumbs, studios could push consumers to engage with content in deeper and more meaningful ways than ever before.
But the marketing success also proved to be a double-edged sword. In demonstrating just how breezy it was to dupe a willing internet into believing that the centuries-old ghost of a dead witch was murdering people, the Blair Witch viral marketing campaign also foreshadowed the ease of how misinformation campaigns would go on to plague the internet years later.
Lee Jeans attempts to capture lightning in a bottle
Before social media and influencer culture, early internet celebrities tended to be quirky personalities or fringe weirdos. Enter Mahir Çağrı, a 20-something Turkish bachelor. His personal website featured his affinity for activities such as playing the accordion, ping-pong, tanning, traveling, and, of course, women—complete with photos captioned in broken English.
Çağrı’s website went viral in late 1999, thanks in no small part to his homepage, which proclaimed: “I KISS YOU!!!!” in all-caps. To capitalize off of the unlikely success, Lee Jeans quietly launched a series of websites the following summer, with hopes that meticulously fabricated internet personalities would eclipse the virality of Çağrı, and could be leveraged as a marketing tool to sell jeans.
Paul Malmstrom, a creative director at Minneapolis advertising agency Fallon McElligott, and copywriter Linus Karlsson came up with Rubberburner.com, which featured a Eurotrash race car driver named Curry; Born to Destroy, the ostensible website of a guy named Roy who liked to destroy things; and finally Super Greg #1, a fictional DJ portrayed by Sacha Baron Cohen in his pre-Borat and Ali G days.*
(*Interestingly enough, Çağrı later claimed that the character of “Borat” was based on him, which Cohen denied, as he had allegedly been developing a similar character for the U.K, comedy series F2F since 1996.)
Super Greg arguably became the most well-known of the three websites and even included a few short video tracks, presumably for authenticity. The character’s notoriety was also thanks in no small part to nuggets of wisdom such as the following, which were found on his homepage:
“Sometimes as a DJ U have these ‘golden moments’ when everything seems to flow. You never know when they are going to happen. It’s funny, on this particular occasion, I wasn’t thinking about DJing at all, but about a sweet girl I once met at a bus station.”
Ultimately, none of the sites succeeded in replicating the phenomenon of their inspiration, and the campaign eventually revealed itself in TV commercials that featured Super Greg facing off against Lee’s mascot, Buddy Lee. Nevertheless, despite its apparent failure, the Super Greg viral campaign was a notable early attempt at corporations blurring the line between marketing and internet weirdness to leverage buzz around a product. And it certainly would not be the last to do so.
Burger King introduces the Subservient Chicken to a baffled internet
On April 7 of 2004, a mysterious website launched seemingly out of nowhere that captured the internet’s collective attention in a way that was impossible to look away from. When users visited www.subservientchicken.com, they were met with an apparent webcam that presented a human wearing a dingy chicken costume—that, quite honestly, looked like it could have been trash picked out of a dumpster—standing in a drab beige living room with red furniture.
Beneath the chicken, a prompt allowed users to type in various directions for the chicken with the instructions: “Get chicken the way you want it. Type in your command here.”
Depending on what was typed, users could make the chicken perform approximately 300 commands, such as “jump,” “peck,” “dance,” or “sing.” If you typed in a command that wasn’t programmed, the chicken would scold you with an unsettling wave of his finger. Sometimes, depending on the command, the chicken would peer directly into the camera from an uncomfortable, close-up distance. At best, it felt voyeuristic; at worst, like a snuff film.
But perhaps most confusingly, in addition to a link for a chicken mask that could be printed and cut out, another link on the site redirected users to Burger King’s website.
People were so baffled by the product placement that many incorrectly assumed the whole exercise was the work of an internet prankster—so much so that it even resulted in a debunking Snopes article.
Indeed, the Subservient Chicken was the work of a highly calculated campaign to advertise the fast-food chain’s new TenderCrisp chicken sandwich and “Have it Your Way” slogan, the brainchild of the Miami-based advertising firm Crispin Porter + Bogusky by The Barbarian Group—a full-service creative agency that specializes in digital and technology.
The offbeat, interactive website attempted to engage a younger, internet-obsessed demographic that couldn’t be as easily reached employing traditional advertising. And the risk paid off. After launching the Subservient Chicken, the website amassed 46 million total visitors during its first week alone.
“The intent here is to speak specifically to young adults in their 20s and 30s. These are people that are very internet savvy,” Burger King spokesperson Blake Lewis said in a Wall Street Journal interview. “They are very active. They may not mirror a lot of the traditional TV, newspaper, or radio consumption patterns that older adults have come to adopt.”
Once the jig was up, the Subservient Chicken began regularly appearing in television spots. A decade later, Burger King even brought back the chicken for a throwback campaign celebrating its 10th anniversary in 2014, with a cameo from Saved by the Bell actor Dustin Diamond.
Unfortunately, a decade on the internet might as well span several lifetimes, and not even Dustin Diamond could stir up much enthusiasm for the Subservient Chicken in 2014. However, Burger King continued to work with Crispin Porter + Bogusky in launching the equally-as-creepy “King” mascot later that year—which was basically intended to be an even more disconcerting version of Ronald McDonald.
Will it Blend? taps into our primal thirst for mayhem
Though practically a household name by the late aughts, BlendTec, the now-ubiquitous commercial blender company founded in 1975 by Tom Dickson, didn’t have much brand awareness until 2006. But that all changed thanks to the viral marketing campaign disguised as a YouTube infomercial series, Will it Blend?
Featuring none other than Dickson himself as the geeky, somewhat reluctant pitchman, Will it Blend? had the feel of a cheesy, late-night infomercial—albeit one that performed experiments that viewers were advised against trying at home.
“Will it blend? That is the question,” Dickson asked in each video, before putting everyday objects into a Blendtec blender and letting it do its thing. In the first video of the long-running series, Dickson placed 50 glass marbles into a Blendtec, which were reduced to a fine powder within seconds. Like many of the objects he would go on to pulverize, what was left of the marbles wafted out of the blender when the lid was removed.
“This is glass dust. Don’t breathe this,” deadpanned Dickson, as he emptied the contents of the blender onto a table. “YES, IT BLENDS!” exclaimed an all-caps graphic at the end—which is incidentally the closest the videos would ever come to a formal product pitch.
The series was an instant, unmitigated success. Within five days, the videos had more than a combined 6 million views, according to a 2015 LinkedIn blog, and sales skyrocketed by eight times following the launch of the campaign.
The following year, the Will it Blend? Series scored another hit shortly after Apple launched the first-generation iPhone over the summer of 2007. Chalk it up to the initial frenzy of the product launch that had people standing in lines outside of Apple stores all over the country, but Dickson definitely tapped into something visceral when he tossed one into a Blendtec.
Using the smoothie setting, the Blendtec made quick work of the highly sought-after device. “Now, fans on YouTube have asked me to blend an iPhone, so I did it,” said Dickson, as he emptied the powdered contents of the Blendtec into a small goblet. “But don’t worry,” he reassured fans, “I have another!”
To date, the iPhone video has been viewed nearly 13 million times. The Will It Blend? YouTube channel eventually amassed over 860,000 subscribers and was still producing content as recently as late 2020.
During a 2012 CNBC interview, Dickson revealed that the viral marketing campaign had stemmed from his personal product testing methods, and was launched with a $50 budget. “Our sales went crazy,” he marveled. “People thought, if this blender can destroy all of this stuff, this can do anything with food.”
The internet as we know it has come a long way in the past 15 years. And so, in turn, has viral marketing. Advertisers must constantly find new ways to grow and adapt to stay abreast of online trends—leveraging platforms such as Snapchat and TikTok—even as audiences become increasingly cynical.
Still, it can’t be said that modern internet marketing doesn’t owe some success to these early campaigns. Some of the most popular modern viral marketing phenomena—including Dollar Shave Club, KFC’s ever-rotating succession of Colonel Sanders performers, the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge (which raised $220 million worldwide), and everything Marvel continues to do—can practically be directly correlated back to these early achievements.
Even the most cynical among us can’t help but be somewhat impressed. Or as the kids used to say around the turn of the century: don’t hate the player, hate the game.