Images of dancing chocolates, barking dog chorales and weeping Olympians bombard us on a daily basis.  Sometimes the brand association is obvious, sometime it isn’t.  Are today’s marketers over-using the concept of viral marketing?  To answer this question, we must first understand what viral marketing means.

Through the use of new media, powerful buzz-building activities help accelerate word of mouth among consumers.  Savvy marketers have learned how to integrate paid and earned media to leverage the power of buzz building across multiple platforms for maximum results. For example, equate the speed at which word of mouth spread pre-Internet to the speed at which it occurs today.  This demonstrates why marketing practitioners must carefully orchestrate their campaigns to include a viral component with the goal of adding value to the brand.  Said differently, creating a viral campaign just for the sake of it doesn’t guarantee success.

Ad Age conducted a review of the top viral advertising campaigns of 2011.  The Fiat 500 “Life is Best When Driven” campaign, listed at number four, harnessed the celebrity power of Jennifer Lopez.  The image of lovely Jennifer Lopez driving around in a sporty little car went viral.  The campaign, which consisted of paid and earned media, launched in September of 2011 and had reached 27.4 million views by the year’s end.

Fiat sales, however, are not exactly soaring.  When savvy viewers figured out that the Lopez spot, which played heavily on Lopez’s New York roots, was actually shot in Los Angeles, the Chrysler Company drew unexpected ridicule.  Some viewers actually characterized it as one of the worst car advertisements they’d ever seen.  Ironically, this drove the video’s page views even higher. Do these results speak for themselves, making this a successful viral campaign? Did the campaign add value to the brand?  I would argue that this is an example of a viral campaign that backfired.  The design was intended to add value, but in the end, it actually harmed Fiat’s brand and de-valued its name.

Social media guru Seth Godin notes, “Viral marketing is an idea that spreads–and an idea that while it is spreading actually helps market your business or cause.”  Godin further states that viral marketing only works well when you plan for it.    Check out this Adweek article to see what they consider the best viral marketing spots so far this year.

My own advice on this topic: When you are planning a viral campaign, make sure that the “what” you want to spread is actually the “thing” consumers will pass along.