It’s the Holy Grail of advertisers everywhere, a hype machine that can be started with a pittance and then will run itself, generating an enormous amount of what is known in the industry as ‘mind-share’. What could I possibly be talking about? Why, the latest way devised by marketeers to separate you from your dollars: viral marketing.

So, what exactly is viral marketing? As always, the Wikipedia has a decent writeup, but it can be pretty well summed up like this: a marketing campaign designed to take advantage of such powerful forces as word-of-mouth advertising (or other social networks), which will in turn generate ‘buzz’ and ultimately sales.

To illustrate, let’s think back to any Ron Popiel infomercial. (Incidentally, infomercials are just about the most entertaining form of television there is.) Ron will spend the majority of the show detailing what amazing things his new product can do. Toward the end of the show, Ron starts knocking down the price of the item from whatever crazy level it started out at to something that, by comparison, is ridiculously cheap. Right before he gives out the ‘final’ price, he asks the consumer (that’s you!) to do him a favor: if you promise to tell a couple of friends about the amazing deal you just got, he’ll take even more off the price.

Now, what just happened?

First, you watched the half-hour (or more) advertisement. An advertisement that probably showed some product doing something that was genuinely amazing, or that simplified some mind-numbing or labor-intensive task. That likely stuck in your mind, and even if you don’t buy the product odds are good that you’ll remember about the knife that could cut through the head of a hammer and still slice a tomato with ease. When the commercial comes on again you might even get a friend to watch it.

Next is the matter of price. Let’s be honest with ourselves here, Ron went into that studio knowing full well what the price of his Amaze-o-product was going to be. He started ridiculously high and worked his way down through all the prices that ‘you aren’t going to pay today’ until he got to his ‘final’ price to make it sound like he was giving you the deal of a lifetime. Then he makes you the deal: tell two people about the product and he’ll take off some more dollars. Ron has created the perception that he is giving you a discount in exchange for you advertising his product for him.

There are two key ideas at work here: the commercial itself, and you telling two of your friends.

The commercial itself, is not viral. It’s just a half-hour message about the product delivered directly to you. This is known as ‘Direct Response Marketing’. If, however, you tell friends that they have to watch this commercial because of some super-amazing thing that the product can do, that begins to be viral and is closely related to ‘telling two friends’.

When you agree to ‘tell two friends’, you’re using your personal social network to increase awareness of the product. If you buy the product and tell two friends, and they tell two friends, and they tell two friends, you can see how quickly the information can spread, almost like a virus, and in short order you have throngs of people that are clamoring to buy the product who may have never even seen the original ad.

So, what does this have to do with anything?

Social networking on the Internet has exploded on the Internet in recent years. Sites like Myspace, YouTube, Orkut, Friendster, and the entire Internet itself are all places where potential consumers get together and pass links, videos, games, and pretty much anything they find interesting around. This can result in some Internet phenomena becoming wildly popular and pervasive through nothing more than electronic word-of-mouth advertising.

Marketers want to harness this power.

Marketers can be a sneaky bunch when they want to be. They’ll slip in an ad when you least expect it in their attempt to part you from your dollars. They will create ads that don’t immediately look like ads. The tricky part of making something viral is making something that people are going to want to pass around. What’s likely to be passed around? Given the nature of the Internet, it’s almost impossible to know. That doesn’t mean that you can’t try and get the word of mouth started yourself.

This can be successful (see Subservient Chicken) if done well. If done poorly, however, it could actually be damaging.

Which brings me to Sony’s latest attempt at viral marketing, All I Want For Christmas is a PSP(the site has been deleted as of today). Before the site vanished, it portrayed itself as ‘your own personal psp hype machine, here to help you wage a holiday assault on ur parents, girl, granny, boss – whoever – so they know what you really want.’ The site hosted ridiculous videos, ads to print out, PSP-oriented blog entries, and the whole bit to make it seem like there were two guys who created a website just to help you tell people that you wanted a PSP for the holidays. They even had people go to the forums of popular gaming sites and plant links back to the ridiculous videos and the site. There were no indicators on the site that it was backed by a corporate entity, but suspicions abounded. It was quickly discovered that the site was indeed faked. The site has now vanished and the FTC beginning to investigate these techniques.

Which makes sense to me, really. I like knowing that what I’m seeing or hearing is an ad. In fact, I think that you and I both deserve to know what’s real and what’s manufactured. If someone tells me that Vess Black Cherry soda is delicious I need to know if they’re telling me this because they actually believe it’s delicious (which it is), or if they’re getting paid to tell me that it tastes like Carbonated Happiness (which I’m not).

I understand that advertising is integral to the longevity of many businesses in the world. No advertising would lead to decreased awareness, decreased awareness would lead to less sales, less sales would lead to less profits, less profits would lead to less development of new products or technologies, and if profits dipped low enough companies might cease to exist. I just don’t have to like how it is attempting to saturate every experience of my life.