Thomas Z. Ramsøy

When viral ads fail on branding

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The following is an adjusted excerpt from my forthcoming book “The Shopper Brain” — first coming in Danish, and later in multiple other languages. How viral ads fail is just one of many topics covered in the book.

The making of viral ads

It was an astounding scene that few would ever forget. In a single video, 250,000 brightly colored balls were sent crashing down the steep hills of San Francisco, accompanied by the dreamy guitar tunes and lyrics of José González singing “Ten days of perfect tunes // The colors red and blue” during his song “Heartbeats.” Amidst the crazy yet serene spectacle of jumping balls everywhere, a frog jumped out from a gutter. Who could forget that?

A Neurons Predict analysis of the viral ad described above.

In fact, nobody forgot the ad. It became an audience favorite, an instant viral hit, and the winner of multiple advertising awards. The ad was in all respects a winner. It became one of the most viral ads at the time. It was even linked to a corporate sales success, sales for the advertised product soared, the product briefly ran out of stock, and the brand’s category share increased by 6%. Surely, the ad was a winner of the hearts and minds of customers and brand owners alike!

Missing the point

But what was the ad really for? If you asked viewers, they would usually say something like “Yes I LOVE that ad! It’s beautiful! But…uh…no I don’t remember the brand.” In fact, viewers rarely even remembered the product category, sometimes guessing that it was for paint, San Francisco travels, or toys! When tested on different groups across the US and Europe, the finding was the same: ad liking was at an absolute maximum, but brand and product memory was at a bare minimum. How could this be?

What went wrong? When going through the ad second by second, a clear picture emerged: the ad did not have sufficient critical elements to ensure brand communication. Indeed, the ad focused too much on the narrative at the cost of attracting eyes to the brand, making brand communications almost impossible. This strange phenomenon has local examples everywhere, where an ad goes viral, but where viewers completely miss what the ad was for. A simple message from this is: ad liking does not guarantee brand memory. To make matters worse, the ad only had the product and brand presented at the very end of the ad, even as a strong visual break with the colorful balls in San Francisco.

The ad we are speaking of here is the Sony Bravia 2005 balls ad, advertising for Sony’s then most recent LCD television with stunning colors. The ad received millions of YouTube views in the first year and was even downloaded tens of thousands of times. Importantly, the Bravia ad campaign was hooked closely to the then-emerging web 2.0, and content providers such as YouTube and Flickr, and was combined with an explicit strategy to provide a “blog-fodder” site at, which ended up being linked to by over 17,500 external sites.

One can argue that the reason that the Sony Bravia success, as many viral ads, was mainly due to the broader campaign, and much less by the ad itself. Or perhaps the utilization of ad liking on other media and channels produced the necessary leverage for the ad’s success. But most of all, it’s been pretty consistent that the ad is loved but that the brand is lost.

Why viral ads fail

A well-thought-out and executed piece of communication can still fall short of its goal. This can be if it does not succeed in gaining attention, emotional responses, or cognitive processing to its vital cues. Indeed, the use of ads as devices for brand communication is just one of many small triggers that change our thoughts and choices — often referred to as “nudges” in behavioral economics. These nudges are known to affect the way that we can estimate the price of a product, how risk-seeking we are, and even how willing we are to collaborate with others.

But just as we can have the perfect trigger thought out — be it a brand to be boosted or a product presentation that creates desire — we can still fail on the execution of the nudge. If the nudge is not seen, it cannot lead to altered thought or action. If it is not understood or triggers the right associations, it will not affect thinking. If it does not resonate emotionally, it will not trigger behavior. If it fails to be remembered, it will not have a lasting effect. A nudge will no longer be a nudge.

Let’s focus on a single question: where do you see the brand in the ad above? At the very end, right? After minutes of jumping balls in San Fransisco streets. After nice music and a good vibe. What is the idea behind the connection between the movie and the brand/product? Possibly to convey that the new Sony Bravia TV has many colors and is a great experience. But do you get that from watching the ad? I don’t. There’s a disconnect for me and the branding at the end falls into the trap of so-called conceptual closure. The branding does not work!

Execution is everything, if you focus on the basics

This points to more general learning: we may have the best idea for a behavioral design that should affect people one way or the other. But if the design does not even pass the most basic requirements such as being seen and understood, it will never work.

This is a much-overlooked aspect in behavioral design and behavioral economics. For example, you may have designed a great social proof element in your product design or communication piece. It plays on the well-established phenomenon of social conformity — that we are attentive to others’ thoughts and actions, and often “follow the crowd” in ambiguous situations.

But what if this excellent design piece is never seen? Or let’s say you have made a great pricing scheme where the optimal prize is presented in a great way, but when visitors come to your homepage they simply don’t understand the difference between the two. Or what if you have a great ad for making people smoke less, but what really happens is that they are appalled by the horrific pictures of smokers’ lunges, making them look away or switch the channel, making the exposure to the anti-smoking ad lower and eliminates any positive outcome.

To this end, knowing how customers respond — at a micro-decision level — is proving increasingly relevant. Knowing how viral ads can succeed or fail as brand vehicles has too long been the ownership of ad designers with inspirations from the heavens… Now, with methods such as AI-driven predictive eye-tracking, it is now becoming possible to test materials even while designers are working on different customer touchpoints such as ads, packaging, and websites. The new trend is becoming known as: predict — test — repeat!

If you want to read more about the limits of behavioral economics, see here and here.

See the Predict analysis of the Sony Bravia ad — and other ads (free)