Lake Ontario Shark
Lake Ontario Shark, via Imgur

Lessons From a Summer of Risky Viral Marketing

July was an interesting month for viral marketing. Coors Light and Bell Media both caused slight public panic attempting to promote their products.

Coors Light created an exciting new campaign, similar to @HiddenCash, where they hid multiple briefcases around Canadian cities. The briefcases were filled with prizes ranging in worth from $25 gift cards to the ultimate man cave. Anyone could play by checking for box locations on an online map and following @CoorsLightCA for #searchandrescue clues.

Unfortunately, the game went haywire in Toronto after a prize-carrying briefcase was left attached to a fence near a major city intersection. While police investigated the suspicious package, a busy streetcar line was diverted as a precaution, the CBC reported.

Eventually, everything was explained and Coors Light tweeted an apology to Toronto’s annoyed commuters.

In the same month, Bell Media got in some hot water over a risky viral marketing campaign in anticipation of the Discovery Channel’s annual shark week.

On July 10, a man posted a video to YouTube apparently showing a shark swimming in usually shark-less Lake Ontario. The man wrote that he was fishing with his brother off Wolfe Island near Kingston, Ont., when the shark appeared and took his brother’s catch away. “Unreal,” the description read in part.

Unreal, indeed. A week later, after significant media coverage speculating what the animal may be, Bell Media issued a press release taking responsibility for the video.

“It’s O.K., Canada. Summer swimming activities can resume as normal,” the release started, before explaining that the so-called shark was actually a model and the video was made to help raise buzz for upcoming shark week programming.

Making credulous swimmers a little nervous with boundary-pushing stunt is one thing. Shutting down transit and enraging commuters is another. Both campaigns were risky, though. How can companies get creative with their viral marketing campaigns while avoiding serious PR problems?

It’s important to consider a few things when planning a viral marketing campaign:

1. Public safety

You want to create mass hysteria—but the right kind. People should be raving about your product, not their snarled commute in Toronto’s downtown core. Shy away from ideas that will cause prolonged chaos.

2. Local laws

A basic understanding of local laws can help avoid involving the police. Every beer company knows local drinking laws and avoids serving underage kids or breaking other serving bylaws if it’s distributing alcohol—it shouldn’t be hard to avoid running afoul of the fuzz for something else.

3. Clarity

Not everyone is Sherlock Holmes, and it’s probably best to leave the police to investigate actual crimes, so make sure to be clear about what is going on. Clearly mark packages with prizes or clues, and be transparent about what is happening with local authorities – ideally before the start of the campaign.

That doesn’t mean you can’t still have fun with it. There’s lots of great examples of viral marketing done right.

Remember the telekinetic coffee shop prank before the remake of Carrie was released? That played out in a contained space within a small timeframe—there was no rampant speculation for weeks about a horror filled coffeeshop.

It worked. That video was viewed more than 58 million times. Opening weekend in the U.S., the film debuted at number three, grossing more than $16 million, according to Box Office Mojo.

More recently, there’s TD’s #TDThanksYou campaign. TD Bank went out of its way to reward a few customers they’ve gotten to know well over the years by getting them some very special surprise gifts.

The accompanying video? It has been watched nearly four million times.