When is a successful advertising strategy simply riding a cultural wave, and when is it something bigger? I ask that question in reaction to the new viral video “First Kiss,” a YouTube sensation that has reached more than 74 million views, spurred the creation of more than a dozen parody videos, and might just redefine a rapidly changing advertising landscape.
If you haven’t seen the video yet, pop culture is definitely not your thing. The 3-minute 28-second black and white piece begins with two people awkwardly standing across from each other preparing to kiss. The title screen says, “We asked 20 strangers to kiss for the first time.”
Soft, ethereal music cues. After that it’s pure anthropology.
The great revelation, and source of some controversy, is this is all a commercial for a Los Angeles-based women’s clothing brand called Wren. It’s easy to miss that it’s an advertisement given the absence of a sales pitch or even a product, other than the fact that some of the strangers happen to be wearing the company’s clothing.
The success of the piece has gone well beyond the sheer number of views, which, according to a YouTube spokesperson, is expected to place it among the top 10 videos on the site this year. It is also responsible for increasing online sales for Wren by an astonishing 11,000 percent following the debut of the video in early March. The previously obscure music, “We Might be Dead Tomorrow,” was written by Soko, who also appears in the video. The song just hit number one on Billboard’s Streaming Songs chart.
Perhaps most compelling statistic, though, is how much it cost Wren to make the video — less than $1,500.
The person behind the company, and First Kiss, is Melissa Coker. Just four years ago, she was graduating from the marketing program at NYU’s Stern School of Business. There, she learned the basics like the four P’s (product, price, place, and promotion) and the five C’s (context, customers, competitors, company, and collaborators). She graduated summa cum laude, but was struck by how formulaic the program was and devoid of a certain creativity and risk-taking that she craved.
I spoke with Stern professor John A. Czepiel who taught while Melissa was a student. I asked him if he thought the success of the video represented something new within the marketing world.
“No, I don’t think it’s new,” he harrumphed, “I just think she caught the spirit of the times.” He went on to compare it to the successful 1950s tagline used by the Clairol company for women’s hair coloring, “Does She . . . Or Doesn’t She?” High praise to be sure, as the campaign is credited with launching the brand and the industry, as well as earning its creator Shirley Polykoff a place in the Advertising Hall of Fame.
But Czepiel’s theory that advertising never really changes seems wrong. It’s almost as if he is describing wallpaper, an invention that has remained virtually the same since the 18th century, except for an occasional change in the pattern of design.
The success of First Kiss represents something far bigger than just keying into what’s happening in modern culture. Wren’s ad may be similar to Clairol’s in that it captured a moment in time, but it is radically different in how that occurred. One was an expensive print and television campaign that was the production of a leading Madison Avenue agency with clients like Lucky Strikes and Palmolive soap. The other was self-produced and distributed, on a shoestring budget, made possible only as a result of YouTube and its ability to rapidly proliferate across social media.
It’s also a signal that marketing must be faster, more clever, and more dynamic than ever. Andrew Graff, CEO of the Boston-based Allen & Gerritsen advertising firm, agrees, saying that “brands need to operate in real time.” For Graff’s firm, that means monitoring social media and knowing when to pounce. Like the time when comedian Michael Ian Black decided to tweet, “Has anyone invented a laser that etches your face on a ham?” A fair question indeed. It turned out that one of the firm’s clients, Dietz & Watson, did just that. And within 24 hours, the tweet was returned with the comedian’s face emblazoned on the ham. Soon millions were retweeting, and likely secretly wishing that they too could have their own face on a ham.
Just five years ago, First Kiss would have been impossible. Its success flattens the distance that once existed between Madison Avenue and everywhere else. It sets a new paradigm that says access to large markets is available to everyone — barrier-free and with no minimum budget. They may not be teaching this in business school today, but I have a feeling they soon will.Mike Ross writes regularly for the Globe. Follow him @MikeForBoston.