As the Internet blossomed in the early ’90s, people struggled for descriptive metaphors. Was it like print with its “pages,” or was it more like exploration via “sites”? Then, in 1996, an animated clip of a dancing baby (aka Baby Cha-Cha) made the rounds, as users on the nascent Web e-mailed it to one another. It took a while, though, to realize why this was significant. In the 2000s, it all became clear: Cutting and pasting a URL was quick, easy and could potentially reach more people than a TV ad.
Still, not everyone understood that consumers only pass along stuff that enables them to look cool (as in, “I saw this thing before you did”). Cracking the code turned out to be pretty similar to making a good 30-second ad. In fact, the first viral video ads were just very good TV commercials, like Honda’s “Cog” or Budweiser’s “Wassup.” For advertising, the watershed moment came in 2004, when Crispin Porter + Bogusky’s “Subservient Chicken” video for Burger King’s TenderCrisp chicken sandwich got hundreds of millions of visits.
Here, for the first time, was an ad created for the Internet with a reach far beyond what TV could offer—and all at a fraction of broadcast’s high prices. The next year, something called YouTube debuted as the locus for “going viral.” The marketing world hasn’t been the same since. —Todd Wasserman