[The History Of Marketing] Viral Marketing Campaigns

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[The History Of Marketing] Viral Marketing Campaigns

Going Viral. Internet Sensations. Household Names. Youtube Stars. Big Breaks. Catch Phrases. Jingles. “Did you see that video of ______?” “I can’t believe they did that!!”

We’ve become desensitized to the 15 minutes of fame and yet, —somehow — more susceptible to it. Everyone has a camera and 20 apps that can record, edit, and share video across the globe in seconds. Facebook Live gives us a real-time platform for activism, marketing, wine induced chat sessions… Everyone has a story to tell and people who want to tune in. Put a baby in it, a dog, a cat, anything Star Wars, old people, or someone making a complete ass of themselves, post it on Reddit, and it’s sure to be a hit. Parodies and undiscovered talent are viral gold. People love the underdogs and success stories. I know I definitely do.

Even writing this blog, I’ve watched:

A Michael Jordan highlight reel (always and forever The King… sorry, not sorry Lebron)...

A poor pitbull recovering from a rattlesnake bite...

Matt Kemp hitting a home run for a walk-off win (#chopon #braves)

Darren Knight aka Southern Momma (which is goddamn accurate and I will never not laugh)

Kids finding out Vader is Luke’s father...

The latest “Most Interesting Man In The World” commercial...

and I’ve seen 20 memes minimum all before 8:30 AM (central).

Snapchat changed the way stories were told and shared. Now Instagram and Facebook have story options neatly packaged in circles hovering at the top of the app. The way audiences engage dictate what, when, and how videos — marketing or personal — are posted and shared. But is the Internet and mobile access what made going viral possible?

Going viral or the viral nature of something stems from — yep, you guessed it — a virus.

Virus: an infective agent that typically consists of a nucleic acid molecule in a protein coat, is too small to be seen by light microscopy, and is able to multiply only within the living cells of a host

Viral: of the nature of, caused by, or relating to a virus

... relating to or involving an image, video, piece of information, etc., that is circulated rapidly and widely from one Internet user to another

While going viral is commonly thought of as a modern phenomena, it has been a pillar in traditional advertising since the 1940s (and I’d argue even earlier, just on a smaller scale). The objectives for any advertisement are to raise awareness of your existence, get people to purchase your product or service, convert them into a loyal customer, and have them spread the word and sing your praises.

O Brother, Where Art Thou? Dapper Dan Man

These marketing objectives have withstood the test of time -- but how do you accomplish all of them? Killer advertising campaigns that get people talking — whether it’s good, bad, controversial, aspirational, the dumbest shit you’ve ever seen, etc…

“Going viral” was originally achieved through word of mouth, then the radio and television revolutionized audience access by being able to reach an unprecedented number of people. This was most apparent with the televising of the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement. For the first time, the rose colored glasses were removed and people were aware of what was going on nationally and globally. The perfectionist, consumer bubble of the 50s had burst. People had a lot to say and they demanded to be heard. Agencies and companies saw an opportunity to flip the script in the marketing world. Advertisements began to exist within the current cultural context and helped define generations. It wasn’t enough to just have a catchy jingle and some colorful packaging. Ads were expected to feature quality content strategically designed to make a statement, push boundaries, and test limits. Campaigns became a platform as companies discovered their voice. These ads, campaigns, PSAs, taglines, etc… have withstood the test of time (to the point multiple blogs have been written about it), some defined generations, and others were so good they were recreated all together.

Search ‘best advertising campaigns of all time’, ‘best viral campaigns’, ‘viral marketing’, or any combination of those words and you will see a considerable number of articles which share their top 7, 10, or 12 campaigns. Which are the best is subjective to a degree, so I’ve compiled my own list. Because this is a blog about marketing, I’ve only included print ads, commercials, and PSAs with one exception. It was damn hard to narrow down this list so I will probably write a follow up.

I could also really dive into each ad/campaign/company and analyze them contextually, but you would hate me. So instead, I will give you a reader’s digest, general commentary, and my thoughts on why they were so memorable.


Any product that can be sold with trace amounts of cocaine is bound to cultivate a loyal following. Although Coca-Cola is no longer laced with cocaine, it’s still a favorite and a household name across the globe. In the South, you ask for a coke and then specify what type. People make a point in restaurants to ask if they carry Coke or Pepsi. If it’s Pepsi, they’ll have a sweet tea. Shit. Is. Serious. So is Coke’s marketing team and strategies. They are also the kings of endorsements and sponsorships with the Olympics, NASCAR, the MLB, the NBA, and FIFA all repping Coca-Cola. Their tag lines revolve around feelings, taste, being original, and being the perfect pairing for food which is brilliant because great food and beverages have a way of naturally reminding us of some (hopefully) pleasant event in our past.

Their first advertising grand slam: Hilltop 1969.

Picture it -- The end of the cultural revolution. The advertising world had been flipped upside down and taken over by open minded/forward thinking creative talent from all walks of life. America is in the throws of Vietnam. Still reeling from the tumultuous Civil Rights Movement. The world needed a breath of fresh air. An act of kindness to restore faith in humanity. So what did Coca-Cola think of? Why not buy the world a coke? Such a simple act of kindness, the smallest gesture to a fellow human, can bring us closer together and change the world. In their groundbreaking ad, they gathered people from all faiths, races, and genders, put them on a hilltop with some glass bottle cokes and had them sing together. It. Worked. “Hilltop” was a brilliant way to usher in the 70s. In 2015, they recreated the Hilltop spot but, let’s face it… the original is just too good. Too classic.

Christmas Campaigns

Perhaps the most iconic campaign to span generations is their holiday campaigns that go back all the way to the 1920s. Dave Knudson (guitarist extraordinare of Minus The Bear and Botch) has a five year old who doesn’t call it a Coke…. It’s the Santa drink -- even in May.

"Daddy can I have a Santa drink?" #cocacola

A post shared by David Knudson (@davidknudson) on

The “Holidays Are Coming” campaigns built up anticipation and captured the essence of the holiday season.

It may or may not have created unrealistic expectations for “the magic of Christmas” but the train, the snow, the lights, and good ol’ St. Nick still adorn their cans and packaging from November to January.

In order to give Santa a break, a new animated campaign was created and featured the cutest polar bears and penguins living in harmony and sharing a glass bottle Coke. Awww… These adorable, quirky ads reeled in kids faster than free candy.


Pepsi hit the shelves in 1893, 7 years after Coca-Cola and has been “Pepsi vs Coke” ever since. Their original tag lines and ads boasted that Pepsi was an integral part in being social.
Be Sociable Pepsi Ad

They claimed it was a lighter refreshment than Coke and you got double the amount in Pepsi’s up-cycled beer bottle versus a standard glass bottle Coke. But in reality, it was just another soda being pushed onto consumers.

The 1960s really shifted the tide in terms of Pepsi’s branding strategy. Instead of the cookie cutter slogans of the 50s that sounded strangely similar to their rival Coke, they capitalized on the new generation of youths -- literally. From 1961 on, Pepsi has spend a ridiculous amount of advertising dollars on creating, maintaining, and spreading the idea of Pepsi as a quintessential “For Those Who Think Young”.

They saw an opportunity to garner a new audience with the counterculture, embraced the energy of the decade, and wooed consumers with slogans like “The New Generation”, “Feeling Free”, “The Choice Is Yours”, “Change The Script”, and “The Spirit Of A Generation”.

The “Youthful Generation” has been the target audience since the 60s, but Pepsi doesn’t just rely on their product. They have spend an insane amount of money on celebrity endorsements. I’ve chosen some of the most iconic Pepsi/Celebrity spots. Some of them are beautiful. Some are so bad, they’re good.

Michael Jackson -- King of Pop -- appeared in numerous Pepsi commercials during his reign in the 80s including "Pepsi Generation".

Urban settings, insane choreography, and a kid (drinking a Pepsi) wanting to be or meet the King was the common theme between them all. They are catchy as hell, fun to watch, and are part of the cultural experience of the 1980s.

Then there was Britney (Bitch) who was the star of a literal reboot of their original “For Those Who Think Young” campaign.

She was then featured in the “Pepsi Now and Then” spot which took the view on a little trip down memory lane.

The ad was composed of numerous 15 second skits, each set during a different ad campaign from Pepsi’s past until it reached present day. Clever, Pepsi. We see what you did there...

Just when I thought it couldn’t get any cheesier than 2002 Britney, I discovered their 2011 “Gladiator” spot. Britney was back with Pink and the Queen Bey herself. In an arguably idiotic commercial, the ladies are pitted against each other in a fight to the death (to win what, I don’t know…). Instead of bending to the demands of Enrique Fucking Iglesias, they exercise their free will by rebelling and singing Queen’s “We Will Rock You”. The power of their voices combined bewitches the Colosseum’s crowd and causes Enrique’s chest of ice cold Pepsi Colas to come crashing down, catapulting him into the arena. Then the ladies of Pop throw sodas into the crowd. Let’s hear it for girl power? (The only thing cheesier than this spot may be this one.)

My personal favorite Pepsi spot is the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brasil “Now Is What You Make It” ad.

I’m not sure what Pepsi did to land the greatest soccer/football/futbol/futebol of all time but it’s working. This ad was created for the World Cup in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil so naturally it’s packed with the best of the best. But beyond the star studded cameos, Pepsi aimed to capture the true essence of Rio from the rhythm of the streets and the vibrant colors to the camaraderie that is born from a worldwide love of futebol. They also wanted to evoke the pride the Brazilians have for their cultural identity and share it with the world. I already love Pepsi (which is sacrilege for this Alabama woman to say) so I pretty much watched the commercial for the soccer gods. Plus, when there are 2-3 games a day for months that commercial becomes ingrained.

I will say, the brilliant part of having soccer stars be your spokespeople is that it’s the most loved and universal sport in the world, giving Pepsi a massive audience to target. Bravo, Pepsi.


Budweiser has been the reigning ‘King of Beers’ since 1876 and originally spread the word about their brews through print ads.
Budweiser King of Beers With that much history, there is no way to really choose which ads reign supreme. Instead, I chose the ones that (in my opinion) evoked the most emotion. First up is “This Bud’s For You.”

It would have been better to name it “ ‘Murica as Fuck” because this is truly an embodiment of 80s red, white, and blue. Just watch… words won’t do it justice.

Second up is what is commonly referred to as the “Puppy” campaign. Like I said in my intro, put a puppy in it and it is sure to be a success. In Budweiser’s case, they did it multiple times and managed to get tears out of even the burliest of men. “Lost Dog” takes one of the infamous Clydesdale horses and has him befriend the most adorable lab puppy ever. Then, the best friends are separated… Watch but be prepared for a tug at the heart strings.

Anheuser-Busch follows up that gold with their Don’t Drink and Drive ad aka “Friends Are Waiting.” Try to keep a dry eye. I double dog dare you.

THEN, for the 2017 Super Bowl Anheuser-Busch released their “Built The Hard Way” ad and holy shit is it phenomenal.

The pre-production itself must have taken a year and the actual production probably took months. The result is a cinematic recreation of Anheuser-Busch’s emigration origin story and it is breathtaking. Unintentionally, it aired after Trump released is abomination of a travel ban and people pretended like they were going to boycott Budweiser...

Bye Felicia!

The result is a hard hitting commercial that spreads awareness that this country and half the things we revere as “American” is only available to us because of immigrants. It was the nicest way to say “Pull your head out of your ass, America.”


Think Small VW Ad VW’s 1959 “Think Small” campaign flipped the script on how creative ads were produced and paved the way for humor and satire for the first time. (See The Creative Revolution for more of a breakdown as to why.) “Think Small” was their first attempt and breaking away from the subpar car advertisements and to say it worked is a gross understatement. They even reworked their "Think Small" Campaign when advertising for the VW Phaeton.

Think Big VW Ad

In 2011, VW produced “The Force” commercial to be aired on advertising's biggest stage -- the Super Bowl. This was their first Super Bowl ad in 10 years so it was a huge deal. VW posted it to Youtube a week before it’s intended air date and in 1 week it racked up 8 MILLION views.

Everyone at The Technical Marketer are huge Star Wars nerds so this commercial is just that much better for us. After the whole emissions scandal, however, VW went quiet as it tries to strategize on how to rebrand and re-instill customer loyalty. Can’t wait to see what they come up with.

De Beers

A ring exchanged as an outward symbol of the bond between two people have existed since the Romans. The modern diamond engagement ring, however, was the masterful creation of diamond cartel De Beers. There will be an entire post written about engagement rings and the wedding industry so I’ll save the analysis. But just take a minute to watch this ad campaign and revel in the cheese factor. They worked like a charm, evoking the shadow and light play commonly associated with classic cinema. This link to “the old world” helped drive home their message -- a diamond is forever.

Disney World

These commercials made my childhood. I’ve only been to Disney once (by choice) but in terms of building anticipation… hook, line, and sinker.

They captured the entire family atmosphere in this campaign, wrapped it in a neat and tidy 90s package, sprinkled on some pixie dust, and raked in the dough. Fast forward to the present. The people that grew up with these commercials are now Facebook Live/Instagram Live/Snapchatting their own children’s surprised, anticipatory faces and sharing it with the world. You can tell me you don’t stop scrolling and watch but I don’t believe you.


I fell in love with the “Girls Don’t Poop” spot from the second I saw it. A woman dressed in the classic 50s attire complete with pearls, gracing a porcelain throne dropping pun after pun talking about how girls don’t poop. Hilarious. The best part is… this stuff actually works for men and women of all shapes and sizes. PooPouri just saw an opportunity to take a double standard, flip it on its head, and get you laughing hard enough at the ridiculousness of it all to actually purchase their product. So go forth, and shit in confidence.


It’s late at night. The lights are off. The glow of the TV casts a soft blue around the room. You may or may not be drunk. Suddenly, Sarah Fucking McLachlan takes over your screen with the most miserable looking dogs and cats the producers could find. “Arms of the Angels” plays in the background and your remote is lost in the Room of Requirement -- also known as your couch. Your lip starts to quiver and before you know it, you’re ugly crying -- snot running down your face as you force your respective pet to cuddle you and look at the screen so they know how good they have it. Then you have to watch Nick at Nite or another rerun of Parks and Rec so you can sleep without having night terrors over these poor, downtrodden, domesticated animals.

The ASPCA commercials work by destroying your soul right before bed. You donate in case you die in your sleep so you won’t burn in hellfire for eternity. I’m not even sure if they’ve produced a new one in 10 years but they don’t have to cause these spots still work.

Metro Train Melbourne

In May, I visited my cousin in Los Angeles. The morning after a giant Star Wars party, we went to a fantastic theater for Saturday morning cartoons and cereal -- the dream really. The theme was Music and there were cartoons from all decades. It was glorious. That fateful morning, I experienced “Dumb Ways To Die” and I say experienced because the little boy and his father sitting next to me sang EVERY word together. To say it was precious is an understatement. Other kids were singing too.

I was caught between two very distinct feelings: How freaking adorable! -- and -- These kids are allowed to watch this?! Then I learned it was a PSA from Metro Train Melbourne intended to spread awareness -- not just some sick, twisted cartoon. Not only were these kids head over heels for this video, there was a bloody interactive app they (or their parents) could download! Talk about knowing your audience…


I’ll never forget the first time I saw this glorious video -- "Potty-Mouthed Princesses Drop F-Bombs for Feminism." Seeing those precious, pint-sized mouths spew such truth with such sass -- “Be still my heart.” I could only imagine how many people were going to be offended...

But the message-- was there one?

Yea, of course! Empower women to reject the double-standard drenched status quo, abandon the classic damsel in distress mentality, and the take control of their destinies. These little girls with their “potty mouths” were in agreement: Pay Inequality is bullshit. Rape and Violence is never ok so teach your boys not to fucking do either. Sexual Objectification still existing is fucked up. Unrealistic beauty standards predisposition men to not want a girl with a brain cause it’s all about the tits and ass. The CTA is to buy this shirt and a percentage of the proceeds go to kickass charities (although it really does get lost in all the pink and purple).

To the question I know you are dying to ask me, “Would you let your child speak like that?”

I say, “If they are standing up for what is right and use it as a means to get your attention… Fuck yes.”


For anyone who has made it this far...Bless your heart. I hope you derived some sort of enjoyment from the chosen ads and learned a little about what it takes for an ad or campaign to go viral. Sifting through seven decades of advertising campaigns is not an easy task and neither is reading 2000+ words on the subject in one sitting. And for that, I thank you.