Wednesday, April 23, 2008

The Bum Bot and Viral Marketing

The Associated Press has a feature today about one downtown Atlanta bar owner who was so fed up with the massive vagrancy problem near his business that he built a robot to patrol the streets at night.

Called the “Bum Bot,” the cube-shaped sentry – equipped with an infrared video camera, spot light and water cannon – barks orders at people when they trespass. Apparently Bum Bot is effective. One man, the AP reporter observed, scattered when ordered to vacate.


Bum Bot has enraged homeless advocates. Homeless debate aside, what a marketing tool. The story was posted all over the Internet. And I, for one, will check out the bar – O'Terrill's – the next time I’m downtown. I’m sure others will too.

Clearly, Bum Bot is more marketing than law enforcement. The opportunities are endless: Press coverage. Live Web cams. Even T-shirts. This thing could go viral.

By now, you may have heard of Burger King’s Subservient Chicken. The site ( has a man dressed up in a chicken suit performing whatever command you type. Type “watch TV” and he watches TV. Type “do cartwheel” and he does a cartwheel. Just don’t tell him to eat a Big Mac.

The site has been a wild success. Says consumer trends analyst Tamar Kasriel in The Economic Times:

“In a hyper-competitive marketplace, the buzz around a brand can be a key differentiator. And yes, consumers are buying into — and more literally, just buying — the buzz brands generate. Today consumers expect brands to deliver new experiences. ‘The Excitement Consumer’ is a reality. Consumers today are addicted to newness. Today, Burger King makes video games using the brand’s characters, and people are willing to pay.”

However, you may also have heard about Sony’s failed experiment with viral marketing. In 2006, a marketing company working for Sony created a website titled "All I want for Xmas is a PSP", designed to promote the Play Station Portable. The site contained a blog written by a “teenager.” However, visitors quickly discovered it was written by the marketing company. Users posted angry messages on the site and exposed the issue on YouTube. Sony was forced to admit the site's origin and later took it down. In an interview with, Sony admitted the idea was “poorly executed.”

At least give Sony kudos for trying.

So, what makes a viral campaign a good one? One of the top ingredients is unexpectedness. Certainly you would not expect to see a robot outside your favorite pub or a man in a chicken suit online doing whatever you tell him to do. Some of the worst ingredients are too much advertising and not being upfront about the relationship between the endorser and seller. Sony's campaign had both of these.

I’m curious as to your thoughts. What makes viral campaigns such as Burger King's successful? And what makes them fail? Have you ever contemplated incorporating a viral campaign into your marketing strategy? Or, are they more trouble than they’re worth?


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