September 16, 2019

Before the dawn of the Internet gave new meaning to the concept of viral content, The Room, a 2003 film by Tommy Wiseau about a love triangle, opened in theatres in Los Angeles.

At first, it was simply bad. Dubbed “one of the worst films ever made”, it grossed only US$1,800 and showed for only two weeks. Between multiple narrative inconsistencies and the cloddish acting, the 99-minute cinematic travesty had critics demanding their money back within half an hour of the screening.

But something happened over the years. People went from cringing to laughing at The Room, which became a cult classic as the best worst movie of all time. It’s so bad, it’s good. It may not have been a self-aware film, made intentionally to subvert traditional forms, but it can be and has been argued as “outsider art”, an alternative film of legitimate value.

Its lack of quality led to an unprecedented degree of virality that spawned a Hollywood tribute, The Disaster Artist (2017). Wiseau most likely didn’t intend to make a bad film, and as the saying goes, “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.” 

So what if we apply this to marketing and advertising, with the aim of increasing a brand’s popularity and sales? Will it work?

Shopee, an online shopping platform in Southeast Asia and subsidiary company of the Sea Group, recently launched an advertising campaign featuring global football icon Cristiano Ronaldo. No one knows how, but the Singapore-headquartered brand managed to get one of the most marketable celebrities in the world to do an embarrassingly goofy dance on camera.

An evident ploy to attract more eyeballs, the partnership garnered a flotilla of gaping mouths and, based on how Twitter reacted, probably damaged Ronaldo’s reputation as one of the cool ones. Shopee, after all, is no Tudor or Marina Bay Sands.

This bizarre campaign came after Shopee’s appropriation of the Baby Shark jingle, a Korean children’s song that went so viral it received a mention on The Late Late Show with James Corden. Replacing the original lyrics with its own, it might’ve outdone the actual ditty in its kitschiness.

Technically, it was a success. The commercial raised brand awareness, reached out to more people than it ever did, and left a lasting impression on viewers. The problem is, how many of these folks noticed the ad was promoting Shopee’s single’s day sale? Did the popularity of the Baby Shark parody overshadow the real point of the commercial?

Likewise, Ronaldo’s campaign undoubtedly achieved virality. The name, “Shopee”, is no longer a stranger to the youthful users of social media. But if we listen in to the conversations, it sounds a lot more negative than it does positive.

Descriptions of the ad range from the critical (a cringe-fest, a collaboration that made no sense, a failed attempt at pandering to mainstream trends) to the secretly admirable (Shopee knew exactly what it was doing, deliberately cranking up the awkward moves and dreadful acting for the sake of publicity).

There’s nothing wrong with wanting to attract attention, but if it comes at the cost of jeopardising your reputation, it might backfire. Imagine everyone’s first encounter with Shopee is through its uncomfortable commercials. Your initial impression of the brand, especially if it’s a negative one, will likely be hard to erase. And if your shopping habits are tied to how you see each brand (that is, as someone who values their personal reputation, you’ll only buy products from respectable, fashionable brands), those ads would’ve only repelled you from ever using the Shopee app.

What’s more, if it’s the content of the commercial that’s going viral, rather than the brand or products themselves, can it really be considered a win? People may at best remember the brand that was tied to the advertisement, but perhaps not what the brand is about or what it offers.

Nevertheless, all’s fair if brand recognition is the objective of your marketing campaign—and brand awareness is the first step to converting traffic into leads. You could also argue that if Shopee had crafted a genuinely witty, sophisticated and artful advertisement with the potential of going viral, the current generation of Instagram-obsessed, viral content consumers may not even respond to it, or respond at the level they did with the Baby Shark and Ronaldo ads.

One also has to consider the kind of brand identity the company is going for. Are you a luxury brand that wants to be seen as graceful and discerning? Or are you a mass brand that can afford to be more jocular and idiosyncratic?

Whether it’s a good or bad thing to chase after virality for the sake of it, and sacrifice quality in the process of it, there are no straightforward answers. Only gambles of hits and misses.