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Ad Libs

A guy pulls up in front of a café in a sporty little black VW. People chat, waiters scurry, a woman cuddles her baby. Cut to a medium shot. Holding his hand up, the driver, possibly Middle Eastern, slowly and deliberately pushes his thumb down on a detonation device, and there’s a deafening explosion. Despite the blast, the car remains intact. The tag line? “Polo. Small but tough.” If you were one of the 12 million viewers who saw this ad during the last month, chances are 1) that a friend sent it to you, 2) you sent it along to someone else, even if you found it offensive, and 3) you vaguely wondered about its origins. Would Volkswagen really make something so outrageous? No, it wouldn’t. While some companies eagerly court any exposure, Volkswagen was not pleased by the commercial, which was made on spec by two 30-something London-based creatives, Dan Brooks and Lee Ford, who work under the moniker LAD (or “Lee and Dan”). “We made it for ourselves,” explains Brooks. “Sometimes people talk about making something and never do it; we decided to do it even though it’s controversial.” While neither Brooks nor Ford will say how the 30-second clip ended up on the Internet, within days it was careening from desktop to desktop. It was blogged widely, and the hunt to uncover the makers was on. Once LAD was identified, angry executives from Volkswagen threatened to sue. And soon after that, the pair, flooded with inquiries, signed with Czar, a repping agency that hopes to capitalize on LAD’s skills and notoriety. While still a little jumpy about legal action — Brooks and Ford apologized and promised never to infringe on the VW brand again, and VW has refrained from legal action — they have new career options, and a lot of people have looked at the tough little Polo coupe for a minute or two. And so it goes in the upside-down world of viral marketing where bad is good and often it’s consumers making the ads instead of ad agencies. But what made the LAD ad so effective, indeed, more successful than many commercials produced by well-paid professionals on Madison Avenue? “It worked because it’s so wrong,” explains Rick Webb, co-founder of the Barbarian Group. Webb should know. His company created the Subservient Chicken Web site in which viewers type commands that make a guy dressed in a chicken suit do stupid tricks. Another instance of viral success, the Subservient Chicken enjoyed a similarly explosive moment of fame. “[The LAD video] is so not P.C.,” continues Webb, “and the things that work virally are the ones that are inappropriate, vulgar or subversive.” Whether they’re made by genuine ad agencies or guys messing around on their home computers, there are two categories of successful viral ads. There are those that are simply unseemly and outrageous, such as the Polo ad, or the one for Nutri-Grain cereal bars in which one bite triggers lascivious conduct and worker revolt, or the Ford Sportka ad in which an unfortunate cat is decapitated. The second category are those ads that make you very unsure about what you’re viewing. “That’s what the Subservient Chicken was,” says Webb. “There’s this mild state of excitement when you realize you don’t really know what’s going on.” While VW swiftly distanced itself from the LAD ad, the Subservient Chicken was bought and paid for by Burger King, and many companies are working hard to tap into that kind of notoriety. The recent Super Bowl commercials, for example, featured two ads with viral components, although they lacked the underground must-see factor that makes a viral ad explode. Another method is to tap edgy, next-gen talent directly. As Czar’s managing partner Steven Shore says of Ford and Brooks and the reason they were brought into his company, “They managed to draw attention to themselves, and at the end of the day, isn’t that what it’s all about?” Companies seeking the raw energy of viral ads face a conflict, though. The ads that work best work because they break the rules. “You can’t do a clean-cut viral campaign,” says Webb. “Companies want to respect the decency and mores of our time, but the fact is there are plenty of people ready to ignore these standards.” Part of the allure for viewers is precisely that viral ads don’t play by the rules, and therefore they feel like they’re part of a subculture, that they’re participating in something subversive. “You become part of it,” says Brooks. “It’s like a joke — if you repeat the joke, you own it, in part because you said it to someone else.” While a suicide bomber is decidedly not funny, watching the Polo ad seems to have sparked a mix of horror and humor that, like some jokes, resonates with larger cultural anxieties. And for viewers who are offended, we can’t blame a clueless or insensitive ad agency for an egregious affront. If anything, we’re making — and spreading — the culture we deserve. In short, the joke’s on us. See the Polo ad at www.boreme.com/bm/JAN05/a/vw-suicide-bomber/fr.htm.


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