ADOTAS – All week, it’s been more or less impossible to avoid the discussion around the “Kony 2012” video, produced and shared by the nonprofit organization Invisible Children. The 30-minute documentary, detailing the war crimes perpetrated upon the people — and particularly the children, in the case of countless children and adolescents who were conscripted into horrific civil warfare — of Uganda by Joseph Kony, leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army guerrilla group, is unprecedented in its reach. That’s not hyperbole: In the (still relatively brief, in the grand scheme of things) history of online video, no other orchestrated, branded (whether that brand be a business or an organization or a political entity) campaign has seen so many views in such a short period of time. It hit 100 views in less time than any other online video, as reports tend to assert. Visible Measures, a company that’s tracked major YouTube phenomena for three years, noted 112 million views as of yesterday, in a post on its blog. According to Visible Measures, the only video they’ve tracked that took off so far, so fast, was singer Susan Boyle’s appearance on the TV show Britain’s Got Talent, but she took nine days to hit 100 million — and by comparison, yesterday was day number nine of the Kony 2012 campaign. The only brand-related video Visible Measures has seen to come close to these marks is the modern classic Old Spice “The Man Your Man Could Smell Like” ad, and it took a year to reach anywhere near the same numbers. Some more perspective: I started writing this piece yesterday afternoon. Right now, YouTube’s showing nearly 800,000 more views of the “Kony 2012” video since when I started. Glitchy as the YouTube view counter might be, even adjusting that number for margin of error is pretty remarkable.
It’s even more remarkable when you consider a couple unusual things about the “Kony 2012” video: It’s long, compared to the average video to go viral. And it’s a trying view: Unlike most viral videos, this one is not fun; its story is tragic. Yet, it’s still taken off — more and more people continue to watch and share it. The campaign has totally kicked over elements that normally would be considered barriers to virality. Either it’s serendipity for Invisible Children and its cause (probably not), or we’re seeing the results of an extremely well-planned campaign (that’s probably it — more on that in a second). As with any online video phenomenon, brands and marketers are necessarily turning their heads, wondering what they can learn from the whole thing, how they can work similar magic. Invisible Children, so many are crowing, is a branding triumph.
Except that… it’s kind of not. The “Kony 2012” video and the organization were barraged with criticism as soon as the video started to spread, a week ago, and by the end of this past weekend, the backlash was in full effect. (Anecdotal evidence: Amid my own Facebook network, the wave of “Kony 2012” re-postings I saw among my friends and acquaintances on Saturday was met with a river of links posted by other people I know to articles and video contesting the content of “Kony 2012” the very next day.) People took issue with the message of the video: Kony’s army hasn’t been active in Uganda for years, they say. The message simplifies a complicated situation, in which Uganda’s president, Yoweri Museveni, came to power himself in part by using abducted children as soldiers in his own army. Critics have called the video “colonialist” or patronizing in tone. Invisible Children has come under fire for its spending habits, per its 2010-2011 budget, which is a public document (just 32 percent of the budget went to “direct services,” with the bulk going toward salaries and the expenses associated with film production). But the catch is, the backlash has broadened awareness of the situation in Uganda and elsewhere in East Africa. More people have more information and opinions than they did a week ago. And that’s actually beneficial to Invisible Children’s aim of somehow stopping the violence in the region. If you want to be poetic about it, the organization has essentially made itself susceptible to be sacrificed for the sake of publicizing its message.
If you look at it that way, there’s a cautionary tale in here. If you want to make a bold, public statement designed to spread far and wide, you’d be prepared for all public aspects of your brand or organization to be peered into. And if your message can be scrutinized, it will be.
And if you’re looking to emulate the successes of the “Kony 2012” video… well, good luck. Only a handful of branded videos ever “go viral” — you can’t expect it. And you absolutely can’t expect something like this. “If you’re referring to this piece of content as branded content, which it is — it’s a crazy phenomenon,” said Christian d’Ippolito, group head of international sales for Unruly Media, an international company that handles social video campaigns for major brands (they were the company that gave the Old Spice guy the social media push), in a phone conversation earlier this week. “It’s unprecedented. The ratio is over eight to one views to shares. That’s huge.” In fact, d’Ippolito went so far as to surmise, merely from his own perspective, that Invisible Children didn’t even expect such a response. He cited a web post the organization’s CEO wrote, “apologizing for the site crashing. I don’t think they were prepared.” He compared it to two ads Unruly promoted: Evian’s “Roller Babies” spot and Volkswagen’s “The Force” (with the kid dressed up like Darth Vader). Those, he said, had no dialogue, which made them well-suited for international reach. The Kony video is very dialogue-heavy. Its message is more or less confined to an English-speaking audience.
This isn’t to say Invisible Children didn’t try. As d’Ippolito sees it, the organization hit all its marks. “This is not a fluke,” he said. “It’s not a coincidence. It’s a very well orchestrated campaign. You have a great narrative. Throughout, you have three compelling characters. You have a great call to action.” And, he pointed out, “The content was targeted to policy-makers and influencers.” Indeed, the video’s been reposted by pop stars and actors, and the video’s central argument is really one of U.S. foreign policy.
By all indicators, Invisible Children was really gunning for exposure. It might seem curious, then, that the instant backlash seems to indicate that when the spotlight hit, it revealed a fairly messy stage. According to d’Ippolito, though, maybe the organization had in fact done about as much as it feasibly could have to protect its brand. There’s no secret method to brand protection, he argued: “I don’t know if anyone’s cracked it yet.” And as far as the message in the video is concerned, he commented, “It was always going to be difficult for them. Consolidating a 26-year-long conflict into a 29-minute video, nuances are going to be missed.” And d’Ippolito explained that whatever Invisible Children’s finances revealed, the fact that the organization was transparent in that regard was responsible, but also a double-edged sword. “They’ve been fairly open about how they conduct their business,” he said. “Perhaps that’s part of the problem.
“I think it’s fair to say that a lot of brands aren’t equipped to deal with the kind of negativity that can arise,” d’Ippolito mused. “This is nothing new.” That’s right: It’s been mere weeks since Skechers earned the e-chagrin of animal rights-leaning people all over the internet for an ad that seemed to glorify dog racing, and a lot of us can recall the outrage after the ill-fated attempt to spin the wildly popular Geico Caveman character into a racially charged sitcom a few years ago. Most of us can think of a few other examples of a brand hitting a raw nerve among a large group of people. “Particularly with social media, it’s very difficult for a brand to harness the conversation,” d’Ippolito said — whether or not the brand’s doing anything explicitly wrong.
D’Ippolito went on to point out a couple compelling developments in the “Kony 2012” story: First, Invisible Children disabled comments for the video in YouTube. “Does that devalue the conversation on YouTube?” he wondered out loud. “Was it not the right forum for that conversation?” (He added that the story had bubbled up from social media and entered traditional media — the conversation isn’t just online now; it’s in the physical world.) Second, he noted that while the YouTube insights had previously marked the video was most popular among females ages 13 to 17 and males ages 18 to 24, sometime earlier this week a third demographic appeared: makes ages 45 to 54. The implication is that the push started with young people, and now it’s gotten to… well, effectively, their dads.
If there’s any takeaway for how mass exposure can work both in and against a brand’s favor, d’Ippolito suggested, “Be prepared. But it should also be viewed as an opportunity.” The public discourse around “Kony 2012,” he said, “can be viewed as a springboard for creating a new set of values.” This is part of the evolution of media, he observed: “It’s not going to go backwards.”
Editor’s note: We’re aware that “virality,” in its truest sense, refers to content that people can add to and help create as they share it, not just content that experiences runaway popularity, and the truly viral part of Invisible Children’s campaign — the part where interested parties are to place posters and stickers around the cities and towns where they live — isn’t scheduled to start until April 20, but for the sake of brevity, we think “viral” is appropriate enough a term.