Few would argue that Tatia Pilieva's video of complete strangers kissing--with 41 million YouTube views logged within three days--is not the epitome of viral. But like most viral videos today, it's far from spontaneous or organic. In fact, "First Kiss" is a vague advertisement for clothing company Wren Studio.
In the classically cynical and reality-distorted world of PR, many will say this is a branding masterpiece, an amazing way of getting Wren Studio's name out there. A bootstrapped, socialized, fashion-focused version of sponsoring a NASCAR team, for example.
In the end, however, the Wren Studio tweet announcing the video got just over 450 retweets. And CEO Melissa Coker's YouTube post of the video (with the tagline "to celebrate the debut of our Fall '14 collection, we asked 20 strangers to kiss for the first time") has been seen only 100,000 times. The YouTube version with the millions of views bears only a vague reference to the clothing company--a tagline that reads Film Presented by WREN. In a beautiful moment of entertainment-industry grandstanding, the artist took (as she should) the credit, the views, and the press.
But that's not where Wren Studio's marketing stunt really failed to live up to its potential.
Coker's YouTube page is barely professional, awfully organized, and strangely unbranded. Plus, the Wren Studio site has no landing page for the video with social-sharing buttons to encourage more branded sharing.
I've tried and tried, but I still see no measurable benefit to Wren Studio here. Even with a big sign reading WREN STUDIO in each frame of the clip, I'm not sure any viewer would click out of YouTube and into a Wren shopping spree.
"It's a beautiful short film that does absolutely nothing to sell clothes or leave any sort of brand impression for Wren," says viral-marketing expert and author of Social Media Is Bullsh*t, B.J. Mendelson. "If I hadn't read the Fast Company article, I would have had no clue that the video was part of a marketing campaign, and maybe that's what they wanted, but the whole 'unbranded content' thing? Unless you're P&G and have the time, resources, and most of all, the patience to pull something like that off, it's a waste."
Late last year, Mendelson famously criticized BlendTec for calling its "Will It Blend?" videos viral when they really caught fire thanks to corporate intervention and cold, hard advertising.
BlendTec's success (measured in awards and sales) is a great reason why companies are aggressively pursuing viral video opportunities like "First Kiss." The problem? Like drunks at a craps table, marketers tend to throw money at the next big potential "win" without realizing the actual cost (or potential success) of a positive outcome.
"Everybody throws around the term viral these days, even if the content in question is totally manufactured, fake, or engineered to have the appearance of being viral," Mendelson says. "The truth is, there's virtually nothing these days that's actually viral. What we have now is a term that's been absolutely ruined."
Wren Studio's results are exactly what you would expect to receive from a bad PR firm--lots of vague mentions in a way that will not noticeably drive sales, or even remotely increase the brand's presence in the market. These stories weren't featured in Woman's Wear Daily, or New York Magazine's "The Cut," or Vogue--or indeed many places that dealt with the buying and selling of fashion products.
Whatever the original plan, "First Kiss" has become an amazing marketing campaign for an amateur filmmaker, but Melissa Coker no doubt sunk time, money, and energy into the project. For Pilieva, the outcome is amazing: She's created something pervasively, culturally interesting, something that has people interested in discussing its very meaning.
Do any of these people care about Wren Studio? Nope. Will "First Kiss" help to sell enough pretty dresses to offset its cost? I seriously doubt it, no matter how many views it racks up.