February 25, 2009
If It Doesn't Spread, It's Dead (Part Seven): Aesthetic and Structural Strategies

This is part seven of an eight part series. The report was written by Henry Jenkins, Xiaochang Li, Ana Domb Krauskopf With Joshua Green. Our research was funded by the members of the Convergence Culture Consortium, including GSDM Advertising, MTV Networks, and Turner Broadcasting.

Spreadability: Aesthetic and Structural Strategies

Cadbury's "Gorilla" spot -- an ad featuring nothing but a life-size Cadbury-purple Gorilla belting out the drumline to Phil Collins classic "Something in the Air Tonight" -- didn't spread just because it was "producerly." It was also incredibly amusing. There is still truth in the notion that good, compelling content remains a crucial factor in the spreadability media. If a "producerly" openness is required in order for content to be adopted into the gift economy, not all gifts are equally valuable, and thus not all content is equally spreadable. Producerly engagement encourages individuals to take on content as their own and invest their own identity in it, making it a potential tool of communication. But, in thinking back to what we outlined as some of the key motivations for spreading content, we must remember that in order to become spreadable, the content has to be able to create worth. In other words, openness and an abundance of meanings and uses may make some advertising material a potential gift, but it has to be able to communicate something that is socially meaningful before someone will give it.

If one looks at the videos that have spread most successfully, a clear pattern begins to emerge: a lot of them, like "Gorilla," are really, really funny. The success of humor should come as no surprise -- we intuitively understand that sharing funny anecdotes or cracking jokes that everyone gets is an easy way to build camaraderie and put people at ease in formal situations. Conversely, making a joke that people don't understand is a fast way to inject awkwardness into any situation and induce a sense of alienation in those left out of the punch-line. Anthropologist Mary Douglas (1991) has noted the very thin line which separates a joke from an insult: a joke expresses something the community is ready to hear; an insult expresses something it doesn't want to talk about. The act of recognizing a joke is an act of exchanging judgments about the world and thus the spread of jokes can strengthen social ties.

Humor, therefore, has the ability to define "insiders" and "outsiders" within a community: insiders may take pleasure in making fun of outsiders. Consider how jokes form around rivalries between colleges or companies: MIT folks don't really imagine that folks at Harvard are foolish but making Harvard jokes signals that we are all part of the same community and close ranks against those "up the river." But tell the joke in the wrong time or place and we can damage social relations, insulting those we sought to include, alienate those we sought to bring close to us. Humor, thus, is not simply a matter of taste: it is a vehicle by which we articulate and validate our tastes.

If we look more closely at the spread of videos, we can identify two extremely popular forms -- parody (often in partnership with certain elements of nostalgia, usually ironic) and humor that uses absurdity or shock/surprise. To be clear, these categories are by no means mutually exclusive, and successful videos quite frequently use a blend of both for added effect. Cadbury's "Gorilla" is a prime instance in which parody, nostalgia, and absurdity are blended in order to create an provocative and spreadable ad. To be fair, parody in general always has elements of absurdity, since its humor relies on the intrusion of unexpected elements into an "normal" or common situation. In "Gorilla," however, the dominant form at work is absurdity. This is established from the very beginning, by starting with a close-up of the gorilla, and pulling out to reveal the drum kit. The opening moment is one of surprise, emphasized with a sudden rise in the music, upending our expectations of what we would see following a series of shots of a gorilla's face. The strangeness of the set-up itself becomes the punch line, rather than forcing any complex interpretations or outside references as is more common in direct parodies.

The video is primarily funny because it asks us to confront the limits of our expectations. The implicit parody elements present are used to keep the absurdity within the bounds of comprehension, however. It is not purely surreal, but rather references a number of clichés and cultural touchstones. The way the gorilla drums, for instance, is a familiar exaggeration of drummers, and Phil Collins in particular, getting swept up into the music. The gorilla, too, is incredibly realistic looking and the opening close-ups are reminiscent enough of nature programs that several users on YouTube commented that they mistook it for an animal rights advertisement until the drumming began. The surprise comes from overturning certain expectations of normality precisely because it is able to set up and evoke them in the first place. The good-natured irreverence exhibited through absurdity and parody in this instance is central to what makes a video spreadable. In enacting reversals and disruptions of standard patterns, the "Gorilla" video poses a sort of abstract challenge to formality and authority. In effect, its informality gives users permission to transgress the audience/producer boundary, to adopt and adapt the content for their own purposes. In other words, if the advertisers don't take themselves too seriously, it invites users to get in on the fun as well.

This worked beautifully for Cadbury, resulting in a slew of remixes and mash-ups that helped promote the original and turn Cadbury into a sort of cultural benchmark in its own right. One user interpreted the video to be melodramatic and "cheesy," and thus created a response called "A glass and a half full of cheesiness" which redid the video using the over-the-top 80s ballad "Total Eclipse of the Heart." Another remix plays up the fact that the drummer is a gorilla, using "Welcome to the Jungle." Still more use artists ranging from Nirvana to 50 cent, the latter song not even having much by way of a traditional drum beat. Further spoofs went on to re-shoot the video with other unexpected drummers, from a tiny stuffed monkey, which plays off the fake primate aspect, to a model in her bra, which does a riff off of the strap line "a glass and a half full of joy," replacing it with "two cups full of joy." Both by depriving the video of a specific message and engaging forms that are primed for participation, "Gorilla" serves as an exemplar of a "producerly" text that spreads as more and more people have a go at remaking it for their own comic effects. Its absurdity creates gaps "wide enough for whole new texts to be produced in them" (Fiske, 1989, p.104).

Parody's Promises and Perils
Another thing that "Gorilla" does well is provide different levels of engagement -- the video works whether or not you get the Phil Collins references. However, this is not always the case with humor. The strength of parody as spreadable media is the fact that it is a predominantly participatory form. That is to say, for something to be recognizable as parody requires certain cultural knowledge on the part of the viewer. This is precisely what makes parody valuable for spread -- it can express shared frameworks of reference within a community and, especially when it plays on nostalgic references, a shared history as well, thus marking those inside as those who "get" the joke. But as we mentioned briefly, this has the potential to alienate as well, and unless advertisers want the spread of their content to be siloed exclusively within small niches, they must be careful to build different levels of "insider" knowledge.

Two instances of well-executed parodies are the efforts by Coca-Cola and Toyota in addressing the gaming community, a large, but undeniably specialized interest group.

With the rise of advertising interest in immersive online worlds, such as Second Life, and the increasing visibility of enormous, global networks of online gamers, big trans-national corporations have started to take notice. Following it's now legendary Chinese World of Warcraft commercial, Coke launched another video game parody/homage during the Super Bowl. Though it premiered on "traditional" media, Coke quickly posted the spot onto YouTube, where it now has over 2.2 million views and nearly 2,000 comments (this, of course, doesn't even count repostings by other users). The spoof features a game-world that references the popular Grand Theft Auto -- grimy, crime-ridden streets, and a rough, swaggering male protagonist -- but when the protagonist has a Coke, the entire game experiences a dramatic reversal. The protagonist slams down exact change on the counter, behind which the store clerk stands rigid, with his hands raised, as if he's being held up. The protagonist drags a blond yuppie, complete with a sweater tied around his shoulders, out of his convertible only to give him a Coke and share a toast. He puts out fires as he strolls on the streets, recovers purses for grannies, gives money to the homeless, and stuffs a passer-by into a convertible full of scantily clad babes. His good deeds attract supporters until he's leading a full-blown parade down the street, complete with helicopters. Every step along the way, every cliché of the crime game gets transformed into an act of giving and joy. Police cars running into fire hydrants, by instance, result into two perfect half-arches of water that creates rainbows.

Though the message is almost painfully sincere, the spot works because of the combination of a broad message (turn bad things good by giving back, part of their "mycokerewards.com" campaign) and very specific details about the game world it was parodying. The narrative works whether or not the viewer knows anything about Grand Theft Auto, but if the countless mentions of the game in the YouTube comments were any indication, the fact that it spoofed the popular game inspired many to help spread the word. Those who "got" the video game elements, especially the more subtle ones like the fact that the character is able to pull a seemingly endless supply of random objects out of nowhere, were able to share and discuss their knowledge, as well as make further "in" jokes ("I hope you enjoyed this sneak peek of Grand Theft Auto: San Francisco").

Even beyond the different levels of gaming knowledge, there is yet another layer of cultural references -- the song used in the spot, 'You Give A Little', is from 1976 musical called Bugsy Malone, itself a parody of cinema representations of 1930s gangsters. In the comments, fans of the film lobbied to see the musical released on DVD and responded to one another, declaring their alliance to that particular fan group.

Yet another recent success was the Toyota World of Warcraft commercial. What made this one different from the previous spot (which, for all its infamy, did not reach nearly the same level of online circulation) or even the Grand Theft Auto spoof, is that it not only utilizes details and aesthetics of World of Warcraft, but refers to a very specific event in the online gaming culture's history. The 30-second spot features a group of warriors standing around planning and arming for an attack, when all of a sudden one of them goes rogue, transforms into a truck, and goes rushing off into battle.

This is a direct reference to the Leeroy Jenkins incident that became so widespread as a cultural reference that it was featured as a question on Jeopardy. Within the World of Warcraft community, the Leeroy Jenkins incident was so well-known that an add-on was created so players could "invoke the power of Leeroy Jenkins" and a play a sound-clip from the original battle video. The key to this parody was how it managed to remain faithful to the cultural cues of the game and the incident -- the deadpan, matter-of-fact voices of the players, the crazy, over-the-top aggro yelling of the "Leeroy" character, who at one point utters one of the lines from the original Leeroy Jenkins video.

There is also an additional layer of self-reflexivity, when one of the World of Warcraft players responds with an exasperated "No way. There's no trucks in Worlds of Warcraft!" All of these things work as winking invitations to those involved in World of Warcraft to get in on the joke, and as over-the-top as it is, the spot is never more over-the-top than the original, carefully avoiding coming off as a mockery. Companies must be careful, however, that in trying to address a wider audience with different levels of shared cultural knowledge that they do not make the parody itself so broad and lacking in culturally specific details that the spoof comes across as mocking, lazy, or disingenuous.

Additionally, it should be noted that the form alone will not do all the work. Take, for instance, the Mini Cooper film series "Hammer & Coop," which, despite being designed to "go viral" as a parody of 70s and 80s cop shows (Starsky & Hutch and Knight Rider), got no where near the attention of the most successful spreadable media. Despite some impressive numbers boasted by the advertising firm behind the series, the YouTube view numbers flatten out in the tens of thousands, instead of millions. As a parody, it lacked a clear interest community due to the broadness of execution. While it parodied the general aesthetic and the dominant tropes of the 70s and 80s cop genre, it failed to draw clear attention to any specifics, and in fact relied on references to other parodies of the genre at times by making the protagonist resemble Ben Stiller's character from the recent Starsky & Hutch remake. Though by no means a failure, the video's limited circulation when compared with the Coke, Cadbury, and Toyota ads, suggests that it is not only the parody form, but the quality and subtlety of execution that matters.

Information Seeking

Another characteristic of popular "viral" content is some level of ambiguity or confusion that encourages people to seek out further information. This act encourages the sharing of content as people enlist their network to help with the problem solving, an act typically known as "collective intelligence" or "crowd sourcing." In Convergence Culture, Henry Jenkins (2006) argues that a successful media franchise is not only a cultural attractor, drawing like minded people together to form an audience, but also a cultural activator, giving that community something to do. Figuring out such spots offer many different communities something to do and thus a reason to continue to engage with its content. Often, these spots force us to look twice because we can't believe, or understand, what it is we are seeing. We need to verify their authenticity, intent, or simply figure out how it was accomplished.

The Cadbury Gorilla spot, for instance, did this to a certain extent, with some discussion surrounding just who was in the Gorilla suit -- Phil Collins himself was cited as a possibility -- and, to a lesser extent, whether or not the Gorilla was real. The VW Polo also engaged this kind of participation , provoking questions of whether or not the ad was "real" or in any way affiliated with Volkswagen. With Volkswagen's denial of any connection to the commercial, people became wrapped up in a search for the origins of the ad, locating information on the creators, the director, and even the budget as clues to whether or not it was a publicity stunt.

Yet another interesting instance of this logic is the "homemade" Ford Mondeo "Desire" video. The ad itself is a whimsical, if somewhat ambiguous, television spot composed of a series of still and near-still shots of cars lifting off the streets of London attached to colorful bunches of helium balloons. The video was uploaded to YouTube and received a few hundred thousand hits, a decent, if unremarkable, showing. What makes the Ford Mondeo case so interesting is that almost six months after the original ad went up on YouTube, a video appeared of two guys from New Zealand tying balloons to a car until it lifted off. The video, posted by a user by the name of homeschooled2, claimed to be a "homemade" version of the Ford ad. It received far greater viral circulation than the original, clocking in over a million YouTube views and thousands of comments, as well as news media coverage, as people tried to prove whether or not what happened the video was physically possible.

Two days after the initial "homemade" video went up, homeschooled2 posted a couple of "making of" follow-up videos that showed that the video was made with aid of a crane and some clever digital editing effects, with acknowledgment of help from the "team from Ford" in the video description. Leaving the nature and extent of Ford's involvement ambiguous, the "making of" videos forced us to consider whether Ford had orchestrated the whole thing, making the original ad with the addition of a viral campaign in mind. Many of the comments surrounding the "homemade" ad were focused on determining whether it was "for real." Even after the follow-up videos that revealed both the crane and the Ford involvement were posted, clearly linked from the original, discussion continued along these lines, suggesting that it was not the answer to the question of authenticity that was the point, but the process of questioning. What is finally at stake is not knowing, but seeking answers. The "homemade" video thus spread by opening itself to this search for authenticity.

This search for authenticity, origins, or purpose can be seen as yet another way of actively constructing the meaning of content, another type of gap that encourages producerly engagement. Here, it is the process of uncovering the "truth" that is more important that what is found. Whether the VW ad is proven to be an intentional stunt or an accidental leak, whether Ford had planned the "homemade" ad from the beginning or not, whether it really is Phil Collins in the gorilla suit, the debate, allows individuals to create and justify their interpretations by asserting control over what information they have about the ad.

Unfinished Content
In all of the previous examples, the "gaps" are in the meaning of the content, whether due to general ambiguity within or hidden information surrounding the ad. Burger King's Subservient Chicken interactive video site, launched in 2004, literally engaged users in the creation of the video's content. Visitors to the site saw a video window with a man in a chicken suit standing in a room. Below, there is a text input box with the words "Get chicken just the way you like it. Type command here." Once a command is typed, it triggers a video of the man in the chicken suit performing the command. There are nearly 300 different clips in all, each set to respond to a variety of similar commands ranging from "jump" to "lay egg" to "moonwalk." Commands that the chicken doesn't understand might result in a clip expressing confusion or boredom, while commands deemed inappropriate, such as those that are sexually explicit, result in a clip of the chicken wagging his finger in disapproval. All of the video clips fit within an amateur video aesthetic, with a single, low resolution camera, pointing head on not unlike a webcam mounted atop a computer.

Unlike other so-called "interactive" video campaigns, such as the Guinness domino website in which a user solves a series of puzzles to reveal parts of the finished video, the Subservient Chicken site creates a more dynamic interaction, engaging the user in a process of actually creating the video. The site does nothing until a command has been entered. That is, the particular video (or series of clips) that is viewed, the actual output, is controlled and triggered entirely by the user. Whereas the Guinness campaign is a matter of engaging with content that is only retrieved interactively, giving up control to the participant only at the level of access, Subservient Chicken gives up control at the level of creation. Though the videos are pre-made, the content itself fundamentally incomplete. Not only is there no meaning, but there is also no action, no finished content until the user enters a command. Thus, by creating a partial work, an archive of incomplete, component parts, the Subservient Chicken campaign offered the user agency that went beyond just access and choice, but tangible participation in the work's creation.

Subservient Chicken becomes producerly by explicitly engaging the user in the creative process. It also triggers an information-gathering urge, much like the Mondeo or VW Polo ads. Users debate how its mechanism works as much as they reinterpreted its meaning or questioned its authenticity. Gamers often seek to test the limits of a game to see how much actual control and agency they can exert. Here, users wanted to push against the limits of the ad to see what flaws they could locate in its execution. Websites soon appeared when catalogued the various commands and their responses. People worked together to test the limits of application and in the process, spread the video to other interested parties, trying to expand the ranks of the puzzle solvers. According to Axel Bruns (2007), some of the key characteristics of "produsage" -- the "hybrid, user-and-producer position" occupied by participants in user-led spaces such as Wikipedia and YouTube -- include that content is "continually under development" and highly collaborative. Working together, they hoped to outsmart the original producers or at least figure out how it all worked and thereby "beat the system."

Nostalgia and Community

Earlier, we noted that commodity culture and the gift economy operate on the basis of very different sets of fantasy. We turn towards commodity culture when we seek to express our individuality, when we want to break free of social constraints, when we want to enjoy opportunities for upward mobility or shift our status and identity. The fantasies which shape the gift economy have more to do with social connectivity and especially with reaffirming existing values and preserving and promoting cultural traditions. The fantasies of a commodity culture are those of transformation while those of a gift economy are often deeply nostalgic.

When materials move from one sphere to the other, they often get reworked to reflect the values and fantasies associated with their current context. Jenkins (1992), for example, argues fan media production and circulation often centers around themes of romance, friendship, and community. These values shape the decisions fans make at every level, starting with the choice of films and television programs which seem to offer the best opportunities to explore these concepts. When fans rework program content through vidding (a genre of fan music videos) or fan fiction, they tend to draw attention to those situations where such relationships are most vividly expressed. A fan music video for Heroes, for example, centers around moments when two or more of the characters are interacting, even though the structure of the original program kept these characters apart for the better part of a season. The selected music further emphasizes the social bonds within the community and the emotional links these characters feel towards each other.

These themes surface most often in fan made media because, consciously or not, these works allow fans to explore the nature of the social bonds and emotional commitments that draw them together as a subculture. Fan-made media is media that is shared with others with common passions and often its exchange can be understood as a marker of friendship or at least sisterhood. In some cases, fans produces stories or videos to give to other fans explicitly as gifts. But in many other cases, they understand their works as a contribution to the ongoing life of their community. The community tends to nurture writers and artists, seeing each member as potentially making a creative contribution, but they value more strongly those whose works reflect the core themes of fan culture more generally.

Other content which is commonly "spread" within the gift economy has an explicitly nostalgic tone. For many baby boomers, there is enormous pleasure in watching older commercials or segments from children's programs of their childhood. This is a generation which is using eBay to repurchase all the old toys, comics, collector cards, and other stuff that their parents threw away when they went to college. The exchange of these retro or nostalgic texts helps to spark the exchange of memories, which are often bound up to personal and collective histories of consumption and spectatorship. Robert Kozinets (Brown, Kozinets, and Sherry, 2003) has explored how such "retromarketing" practices have helped to revitalized older brands, giving them greater currency in the contemporary marketplace. As Kozinets and his collaborators explain:

Long abandoned brands, such as Aladdin (lunchboxes), Beemans (gum) and Chuck Taylors (shoes), have been adroitly reanimated and successfully relaunched. Ancient commercials are being re-broadcast (Ovaltine, Alka-Seltzer) or brilliantly updated (Britney Spears sings "Come Alive" for Pepsi). On the Internet, sites devoted to marketing a variety of retro merchandise--from candy (nostalgiccandy.com) to fabric (reprodepotfabrics.com), games (allretrogames.com) to home furnishings (modfurnishings.com)--have popped up. Retro styling is de rigueur in countless product categories, ranging from cameras and colognes to telephones and trainers. Even automobiles and detergents, long the apotheosis of marketing's new-and-improved, washes-whiter, we-have-the-technology worldview, are getting in on the retroactive act, as the success of the Chrysler P.T Cruiser and Color Protection Tide daily remind us.

In many cases, the release of these retro products sparks enormous conversation wherever there are consumers old enough to have fond memories of their hay day. In other cases, online discussions of long retired brands has led to a greater appreciation of their potential within parent companies, as in the case of Quaker Oats' Quisp cereal, which had been introduced in 1965, entered the popular imagination thanks to an inventive ad campaign created by Rocky and Bullwinkle's Jay Ward and Bill Scott, and finally disappeared from national circulation in 1977, though it remained available in some regions of the country. Internet discussions and eBay transactions sparked growing consumer awareness of the brand, helping to pave the way for more aggressive marketing effort by Quaker, including the development and online sale of a gourmet sized package of the crunchy sugary cereal.

While online fans contest the authenticity of the re-issued product, they also share personal memories of their childhood enjoyment of the product and in the process, spread the news of its reissue to others in their social circles. In discussing the values which shape successful retro-brands, Kozinets and colleagues describe something very close to the animating fantasies of the gift economy:

Utopianism is perhaps the hallmark of the retro-brand. The brand must be capable of mobilizing an Elysian vision, of engendering a longing for an idealized past that is satisfied through consumption....Solidarity is an important unifying quality of the retro-brand. Whether as extreme as a cargo cult or as moderate as fictive kinship, the brand must inspire among its users the sense of belonging to a community.


Brown, Stephen, Robert V. Kozinets, and John F. Sherry, Jr. (2003). "Sell Me the Old, Old Story: Retromarketing Management and the Art of Brand Revival," Journal of Consumer Behavior, June, 2. pp.85-98.
Bruns, Axel (2007) "Produsage, Generation C, and Their Effects on the Democratic Process", paper presented at Media in Transitions 5: Creativity, Ownership, and Collaboration in the Digital Age, April 27-29, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA USA.
Douglas, Mary (1991) "Jokes," in Rethinking Popular Culture, Chandra Mukerji and Michael Schudson (eds.). Berkeley: University of California Press, pp.291-311.
Fiske, John. (1989) Understanding Popular Culture. London: Routledge.
Jenkins, Henry (1992). Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture. New York: Routledge.
Jenkins, Henry (2006). Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. New York: New York University Press.