by Linda Holmes
Fox has acknowledged that the "Snakes On a Cane" image you may have been seeing brief flashes of on TV — they're stitched together in the compilation clip above — was a viral marketing effort on behalf of the network's popular drama House.
And it's fitting that the image involves snakes, because if anything is in the process of consuming its own tail, it's the kind of campaign that is commonly referred to as viral marketing.
Pressing the same button too many times, and the irony of a pun, after the jump...
We must begin, of course, with the fact that nothing is "viral" about ads on television. The Snakes On a Cane clips may be mysterious, but they're no more "viral" than a Tide commercial.
Similarly, there are online reports about Fox sending out shirts with the Snakes On A Cane image on them, and that's not viral marketing, either. Network shipments of promotional swag are not viral in the traditional sense of "spread from individual to individual based on social interaction." There's not a lot of evidence that this took on any sort of life of its own, that virtual "snake/cane communities" popped up, propelling the phenomenon forward beyond the network's promotional efforts.
So "viral" is used in this context to mean simply "marketing that doesn't explicitly say what it's for or even that it is marketing, because it is dearly hoped that this will create overwhelming and ultimately bankable curiosity."
It is fair to say the campaign is cryptic ... sort of. For anyone who has ever seen House, this is an extraordinarily easy puzzle to solve. Medical profession + cane = House. But if you had no idea what House was, then you might legitimately say, "Huh?"
The problem with this kind of "What is that?" marketing, where the charm is supposed to be the lack of explanation, is that we're all getting used to it. In order to work, campaigns like this one have to spark bafflement, and bafflement is harder to come by as more and more such campaigns are undertaken. When we reach a point of full-on "When in doubt, suspect viral marketing" savvy, the whole thing is over.
Because when that happens, the sighting of something mysterious doesn't trigger questions about what it is — only about which product it's for. That makes it no different from a commercial on television that doesn't name the product: You might be mildly curious, but you know you're hearing a pitch, so you have your skeptical-consumer hat on from the beginning. And as you know, your authentic-curiosity hat and your skeptical-consumer hat cannot be worn simultaneously.
You may recall the similar Fringe campaign we talked about in April — if you watch much on Fox, you probably do.
And that's the problem. At this point, when something "mysterious" pops up on your screen while you're watching Fox, you're less likely to run to your computer to investigate and more likely to experience a Pavlovian response in which you start running through the list of Fox's prime-time programming, trying to figure out which show this particular oddity is trying to sell you.
Ultimately, given the conviction embedded in this kind of advertising — the faith that the power of curiosity and the power of the Internet can be harnessed to amass a large audience — it's adorable that the House campaign features a callback to Snakes On A Plane, which is probably the single greatest lesson of the Internet age in the fact that getting people to talk about something isn't necessarily worth any money.
Because despite enormous chatter about its title, and despite all of its unconventional attempts to get attention (like tweaking the film to respond to online suggestions), that movie made only about $34 million domestically. Sure, buzz is good and lots of buzz is better, but people saying, "Oh, that thing with the snakes and the cane was about House?" doesn't mean they'll follow with, "I must tune in and find out more about this man and his cane, despite the fact that I have chosen not to watch this show for the last five years."
Bottom line: Enjoy this kind of campaign while it lasts, because in short order, we'll all be so jaded that we'd ignore the reappearance of the woolly mammoth, convinced it's just a scheme to market the latest Ice Age movie.