H1N1 Isn’t The Only Pesky Virus Going Around

Unfortunately, the world is not ending any time soon — but some people seem to believe it is. The Guardian is reporting that the viral marketing campaign for 2012 (a movie about the end of the world) has caused some panics in the states by people believing that the end really is near, so much so that NASA has put up a FAQ page about 2012 and the end of the world. Clearly the viral marketing worked, just not for the movie. Yes, it’s bad that people bought the story about the world ending, but I don’t think that’s the real story here.

Viral marketing is about making people curious, and getting them to talk amongst themselves. If done properly, an idea or campaign can be seeded very cheaply; word of mouth then does all the heavy lifting, getting the message to a large group of people at no (or very little) additional cost. It also has the benefit of turning people into advertisers; you’re more likely to pay attention when a friend tells you about a product or service than when a commercial tells you about the same product or service (by the way, kudos to McDonalds on their coffee, which they’re giving away for free this week).

This approach is not without problems. Anyone who has graduated grade school (and therefore played many a game of broken telephone) knows, it’s really easy for a message to get degraded as it makes its way through a crowd. When you’re relying on crowds (or individuals) to relay your message on your behalf, it’s essential to pick one that doesn’t degrade easily. It’s also crucial to pick a message that explains it’s own context. Continuing with my McDonalds example, it’s pretty hard to misinterpret “free coffee at McDonald’s,” whereas “‘the world is ending in 2012’ is the premise for a new movie and you should go see it” lends itself readily to all sorts of breakdowns and losses of context — which in turn make a shorter message that is itself easier to communicate.

The trade off for cheap viral marketing is that as soon as the message or idea is released into a crowd, its originator loses all control. It’s still very bad that people unquestioningly accepted the suggestion that the world was going to end, but that was the message at the core of the viral marketing campaign. Was the campaign irresponsible? Poorly run? Very effective? Are the consumers who believed it to blame for their own ignorance?

Just as airline travel made it possible for infectious diseases to spread to new populations at scary new speeds, our densely connected information networks allow ideas and messages to turn viral and spread very quickly — have we got a responsibility to critically analyze information before we pass it on to our peers, or is that their responsibility?

Churchill said that “A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on,” today it can get around the world at least a dozen times in the same amount of time.