Can a man with a tiny electronic device hack into the multitude of jumbo screens in Times Square and play videos from his iPhone? Maybe, if you believe a YouTube video that has been watched by more than half a million viewers in the last four days. The video was posted on YouTube on Monday under the user name BITcrash44. By Wednesday, it had generated more than 800,000 views and had been mentioned on Web sites like Gizmodo, Gothamist, Salon and NBC New York. One Web site even listed it as the most popular viral video on Twitter.
The multitudes who have seen the video have become swept up in an intense debate around one question: is it real? Well, it’s a fake. And the reaction is exactly what James Percelay and Michael Krivicka wanted when they produced the video as part of a promotion for the soon-to-be-released film “Limitless.” The two men, founders of a viral marketing company called Thinkmodo, are tapping into a growing desire among marketers to attract and keep the attention of online viewers with videos that get shared on social Web sites like Twitter, YouTube and Facebook. The strategy for Thinkmodo is to make videos that viewers will think are clever and authentic without overtly pushing or mentioning a product, Mr. Percelay said.
“We’re pushing the engagement of an idea which leads you then to the product,” he said. “It just is a whole new mind-set where you don’t have to wrap everything up in a bow and if you don’t, people are going to be a lot more interested in you and what you’re selling and what your message is.”
The video released this week, Mr. Percelay said, takes its cue from the premise of “Limitless,” in which a man is able to use all of his brain capacity with the help of a pill called NZT. The video shows a man in an orange jacket standing in Times Square explaining how a makeshift electronic “repeater” and “transmitter” connected to his iPhone can take over any video screen.
First, he tries the device on two small video screens on newspaper kiosks. All the while a cameraman is filming him as he holds the iPhone so viewers can see how the content being projected syncs with the content on the screen. The man then buys a big red balloon to which he attaches the device. When the balloon floats in front of a large video screen playing a trailer for “Limitless” on the corner of Broadway and 47th Street, the iPhone video suddenly begins playing on the screen instead.
Marketing for “Limitless” includes traditional media like subway posters, television commercials featuring the song “Power” by Kanye West, digital and print advertising, and a fake Web commercial for NZT, the drug featured in the film. But even with all of those marketing dollars being spent, a viral video has its place, said Peter Adee, the president of worldwide marketing and distribution at Relativity Media.
“You are getting your message across, but it’s tangential; it’s not a direct frontal assault,” said Mr. Adee, adding that the do-it-yourself look and feel of the video is also an important element. “You don’t have to make it perfect; if anything, that would hurt it. It has to feel organic. It has to feel original.”
Advertisers have been increasingly experimenting with viral videos. One of the most popular campaigns during the last year has been for Old Spice, featuring the actor Isaiah Mustafa.
Wieden & Kennedy Portland, the agency of record for Old Spice, created a series of videos that went viral in July, in which Mr. Mustafa answered consumer questions in real time over the course of several days. The agency used social networking sites to get questions from users and posted the video responses on You Tube and other sites.
“You don’t need a production of 50 people. You can move the world with three,” said Joani Wardwell, the global public relations director for Wieden & Kennedy.
Mr. Percelay and Mr. Krivicka had been toying with the concept of viral videos for about six months before deciding to use them as marketing tools. Mr. Krivicka, 34, is a freelance video producer and Mr. Percelay, 49, has a background in television production, including a former job as a line producer for “Saturday Night Live.” Neither has a traditional advertising background nor the accoutrements that come with a traditional agency, like office space or assistants, which Mr. Percelay said actually helps them compete with large agencies.
“We represent the new age in advertising,” Mr. Percelay said in an e-mail. “Virtual offices and the ‘YouTube aesthetic’ are ushering in a sea change enabling creatives with minuscule overhead to go head to head with those with massive ones.”
The company embarked on its first official project in February, with a video featuring a helmet that could shave a person’s head. The video was shot using an iPhone in the bathroom of a nondescript Midtown Manhattan building on a rainy Saturday afternoon.
The product the commercial was intended to sell, a head-shaving device called the HeadBlade that fits on a few fingers, was not overtly mentioned in the spot. But that didn’t stop the video from becoming a viral sensation — it was viewed more than one million times on YouTube in less than a week — and from duping viewers and a few television news anchors in the process.
The video garnered more than 500 broadcast mentions in the United States, Canada, Europe and Asia and was posted on more than 1,000 Web sites and blogs, according to Mr. Percelay. HeadBlade sales surged 31 percent after the video was released, and the company’s Web traffic increased 49 percent as a result, he said.
“HeadBlade asked for one thing only,” said Mr. Krivicka. “They asked for a viral marketing campaign that starts a conversation around head-shaving.” Mr. Krivicka guarded many of his secrets for seeding viral videos on the Web, but said the best day to offer one up was on Mondays. “The weekend usually kills it, nobody is in the office, nobody passes it on, people are away,” he said. Part of the strategy is also to tip off editors of target Web sites, buy keywords and Web site addresses and use social media to get the word out without being obvious. “It has to be finessed in a certain way,” Mr. Krivicka said. “A true viral should not need a lot of pushing.”