The Biggest Viral Ads & What We Can Learn: From 2013 – Now

The quest for 1,000,000 views is eternal, having spread across the web of internet users and content creators like a virus. Sure, the number is nice and round and comes across clearly when included on a list of accomplishments. But going viral means far more than numbers alone. And the work doesn’t end there. Achieving that level of recognition presents a plethora of opportunities. It’s only just begun.

A Tale of Laughter and Tears

The 2013 list of most popular ads is an interesting one. First off, Geico’s ‘Hump Day’ seems like a somewhat surprising inclusion, especially so high on the list. But the simple concept lends itself perfectly to mass appeal. Wednesday is Hump Day, camels have humps, therefore a camel would be the one to draw an office’s attention to making it past that midweek milestone.

It’s made more unexpected when paired right behind the year’s winner, Dove’s ‘Real Beauty Sketches’ spot, which sat at 4.2 million shares.

The ad features a former forensic sketch artist as a handful of different people who, after not seeing each other, would come in one at time and sit on the other side of a sheet, answering descriptive questions about themselves. They would then, after spending some time with another of the participants, be asked questions in the same fashion, but about the other person. Once the process was over, the artist would show the person both sketches. The one drawn from details they provided about themselves, and the one from details that other people provided.

You will always see yourself one way, and, more often than not, that way will lean towards the negative. Aren’t our minds great? You can know it, but still not fully believe it. With their ad, Dove is trying to show you that all the negative traits you see when you’re picturing yourself are what only you see. Others can see the positive more clearly because it isn’t theirs. It’s a lesson that everyone can take something from, and its reception showed that many people did.

One thing that advertisers can learn from this year is that no matter how audiences appreciate the emotional more and more, there’s always room for some well-done comedy. Laughter, along with human issues and feelings, is one of the other great unifiers.

Spectacle Ads Up

In 2014, the biggest ad to go viral – or the most viral, if you think that sounds better – was Shakira singing ‘La La La’ for Activia. This was shared more than 5.8 million times, taking the top spot as Most Shared Ad of All-Time.

The production value placed into the development of this ad is impressive. It’s very much a fully-produced music video. By shifting focus to soccer and tying into the World Cup, it only mentions Activia twice (at the start and finish). This was the first in the soon-to-be-trend known as ‘track-vertising,’ pairing an artist and song with a product or brand. This specific ad was also created alongside a non-profit (World Food Programme) with the purpose of bringing school meals to high-poverty countries.

The 2014 list was shared by the “Like a Girl” ad by Always, calling out the stereotype of such lines as ‘run like a girl,’ and ‘throw like a girl,’ Where older men and women (20s – 30s) acted in line with such stereotypes when given those directions, the girls who were 10 years old acted in no such way. To do a thing ‘like a girl’ simply meant to do that thing to the best of your ability. Nothing unnecessarily awkward or uncoordinated about it. A powerful message would certainly be just as, if not more, effective today. As well as a signifier of the type of ads yet to come…

The sheer scale and spectacle of ‘La La La’ fit alongside the others of the year, but also signified another shift in the marketing world overall. By reaching not just the top of the year’s ads, but becoming the most shared of all time, it reinforced another aspect that people respond to and appreciate most when it comes to the advertising they experience. A willingness to invest monetarily is not all, though. The need for a good, strong message is also increasingly important, as the next year will show us.

Plain. Simple. Powerful.

The number one ad of 2015, with over 6.4 million shares and the new title previously held by the previous year’s Shakira ad, belonged to Android.

It featured no technology, no mention of a product, only a simple fade-in of the brand name at the very end, after its message was presented. And that message is made clear without a single word being said (or person being shown at all). Using animals captured through ‘found footage’ setups across the globe, the ad played a handful of bits edited together to show off an elephant and a sheep running and digging together, a dog being fed from the pot from a parakeet. There are dolphins, elephants, monkeys, chimpanzees, and even a lion cub, each playing with another species with pure joy on their faces.

And that’s it. That’s the message. Plain and simple, yet powerful enough to evoke an emotional response. “Be together. Not the same.”

The other ads on this list involve Robert Downey Jr. delivering a fully-functional bionic arm to a young boy (Microsoft) and The Ad Council’s “Love Has No Labels.” Can you sense the pattern? Much like the ads of the last few years, the pieces that continue to stand out are the ones that carry actual resonance. And not just for ‘their audience.’ The messages apply to everyone. That’s the beauty of basic human emotion. The levels are simple enough as to be all-encompassing, while allowing plenty of room to polish your message as well as its execution.

Baxter’s Leap

On to 2016.

This year saw the focus remain on animals, but with a different message (and production style) than last year. “Buster the Boxer,” from John Lewis, hits viewers with the immediate emotional attachment that comes with the family pet. The written message, ‘A gift for everyone,’ is presented well, with the trampoline that the father builds during the night to be ready for Christmas morning being used the night before by foxes, a badger, and a handful of other woodland critters. All shown jumping and grinning and with tongues wagging. Here are animals that would otherwise have little to no part with each other, and even existing in a predator vs. prey dichotomy. But for tonight, we’re all going to toss that aside and enjoy the trampoline, as well as each other’s company.

That’s all well and good and provides some warm feelings and smiles, but the selling point comes in the morning. There’s excitement on the daughter’s face as clear as Christmas Day. But for one reason or another, seeing such joy radiating from the face of the family dog is amplified tenfold. The dog races past the daughter, gleefully leaping onto the bouncy surface, happy as can be.

John Lewis aims to promote themselves as a provider of products for everyone. But they do something a little more. The message becomes one of unity, of shared experience and joy between those animals. It’s here that the ad melds its product with issues of the real world and pushes itself to the top spot in 2016.

Looking Ahead

Now that we’re more than six months into 2017, we can look at a few of the biggest ads to grace our screens and maybe even get a read on whether the trends they show will continue into the second half of the year.

With marketing productions like the Super Bowl’s Budweiser ad, Heineken’s “Worlds Apart,”, and Pantene’s Gold Series piece, this year is already off to a great start. These portray the lack of fear for products & brands to speak their mind and craft an ad that truly sends a message.

Alongside the other lessons that each of the ads here have taught us, there’s another that they all share. While not a necessity for reaching viral status, learning to keep ego out of the equation is great when considering future endeavors. It shows a level of commitment to the emotional message of the ad. Not every ad will fit that mold, and they don’t have to. When you come across that great idea, that story that won’t leave your head despite how hard you try, let it play out. Beat for emotional beat. The perfect place will reveal itself. If that perfect place is right at the end, your brand’s name fading in for the last 5 seconds or so, it might be best for you to listen.

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