COMMENT: Editorial - Is viral marketing being hijacked?

The media has always loved fads and fashions. This year's big ticket media items have included a rather dangerous scooter, an illegal music software, a children's book about a child with magic powers which bears a striking similarity to a host of previous children's books about children with magic powers, the obligatory sold out games software, and a pair of sunglasses straight out of the early 1980s.

The media has always loved fads and fashions. This year's big ticket media items have included a rather dangerous scooter, an illegal music software, a children's book about a child with magic powers which bears a striking similarity to a host of previous children's books about children with magic powers, the obligatory sold out games software, and a pair of sunglasses straight out of the early 1980s.

The media has always loved fads and fashions. This year's big ticket media items have included a rather dangerous scooter, an illegal music software, a children's book about a child with magic powers which bears a striking similarity to a host of previous children's books about children with magic powers, the obligatory sold out games software, and a pair of sunglasses straight out of the early 1980s.

Is it, then, a coincidence that there's an increasing focus on the genesis of these fads and fashions, on how specific items spread, like wild-fire, through the brush of American consciousness? Over the years, many in PR have tried to identify, analyze, dissect and measure the curious chimera that creates 'buzz'. But this year, the sport has spread beyond the PR industry, to become a fad all its own.

Last spring, New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell wrote a seminal book on the subject called The Tipping Point in which he tried to trace the precise moment at which an idea became a nationwide craze or epidemic.

Like most other attempts in this field, what it didn't do was tell you how to actually learn from the examples.

This autumn, an even more interesting book on the phenomenon of 'buzz' emerged. Seth Godin's Unleashing the Ideavirus gave practical application to Gladwell's treatise - he posted it on the Internet (www.ideavirus.com).

It has since been downloaded by more than a million people - a true testament to the power of the idea.

Godin argues, not for the first time, that the public will increasingly take its leads from a global community of opinion formers. These 'fashion editors' as he likes to call them - journalists, venture capitalists - provide 'hives' where buzz can generate with the requisite pollen; and the pollen is then spread by 'sneezers,' who might be other journalists, or celebrity sneezers like Oprah Winfrey, or friends and colleagues and classmates.

The really interesting thing about this phenomenon, however, is not this new lexicon of buzz - PR has been here before. It's in the fact that certain corporations - particularly youth-oriented brands like Nike and Tommy Hilfiger - are attempting to nurture and plant these ideaviruses in a conquest of cool that focuses on identifying the 'sneezers' in key groups, including popular kids in schools, and influential students on college campuses, and then lavishing them with freebies and trial products.

To some, this process of inveigling corporate messages into the subconscious is cynical and invidious, and some of the techniques described in Naomi Klein's intelligent new book, No Logo, are certainly frightening. And one of the aspects that is most alarming is the fact that, unlike journalists, these 'sneezers' have no interest in 'objectivity' or 'fairness'.

But this identification of new audiences - opinion formers, and e-pinion formers - takes the science of third party endorsement to a new level of sophistication, and it's vital that PR embraces and addresses these audiences. Yet the curious thing is that PR experts remain curiously silent on this new phenomenon, and these new techniques.

If 'viral marketing' and 'ideaviruses' and 'tipping points' get hijacked by others in the marketing arena - youth marketers, Internet gurus, direct marketing experts - the PR industry will only have itself to blame for underselling itself once again



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