Scion, a division of Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. Inc., is raising the viral bar.
Scion and its ad agency, ATTIK, have spent the past year plastering posters, parking cars outside nightclubs and projecting images on buildings in big cities to generate buzz for its xA and xB models.
"(Viral marketing) is the unsung part of this project," Farley says. "I think if we lose that, we lose everything. And it's so easy to lose it, because it is so hard to pull off trendy events."
This month, to promote the tC sports coupe, ATTIK is creating posters and mobile billboards that will appear nationwide. ATTIK also has developed an animated series called "303 Caliber," which features the bizarre adventures of four
characters driving a tC across the country. The episodes will appear only online.
During this year's New York Auto Show, Scion had teams of young people walk through Times Square with temporary tattoos of its new tC on their foreheads.
The viral field is getting crowded. Last year, Mazda studied concepts for two online-only videos to promote the introduction of its Mazda3. Officials of the automaker hoped consumers would find the videos entertaining enough to send to friends.
"If you hit it right it spreads like wildfire," said David Sanabria, group manager of relationship marketing at Mazda.
To launch its five-door Honda HRV, Honda Motor Europe created several small films designed to be passed on. Honda's "Cog" ad, a two-minute film that highlights a European version of the Accord, spread around the Internet within two weeks after it was released. The film shows car parts sliding, bumping and rolling in a manner suggesting a Rube Goldberg device.
In March, Volvo's European headquarters created a "mockumentary" called "The Mystery of Dalaro." The short film told the phony story of 32 people in a small Swedish town who bought an S40 from the same dealer on the same day. It included interviews with buyers and a pop-up message that directed viewers to the Web site volvocars.com.
Volvo hired teams across Europe to stimulate conversations about the film in Internet chat rooms. More than 1 million people watched the movie during a one-day appearance on Yahoo's Web site.
Unintentionally or otherwise, viral campaigns can generate controversy.
Ford's ad agency, Ogilvy & Mather, used a viral campaign to introduce its SportKa hatchback to British drivers. The automaker marketed the car as a livelier version of its Ka subcompact, and commissioned videos to spread that message.
One video showed a computer-generated cat investigating the SportKa's sunroof. As the cat approached, the closing sunroof lops off the cat's head. The ad found its way onto the Internet, bouncing around Europe for several days before it jumped to the United States.
When the film angered British animal rights groups, Ford insisted it had never approved the spot for broadcast. Ogilvy said the clip's leak was unauthorized. The release, accidental or not, created massive exposure that would have cost millions of dollars to achieve on TV.
"It's a win-win-win situation," says Lucian James, an expert on popular culture and founder of the Agenda marketing agency in San Francisco.
"These kind of efforts are all very illicit," he says. "They are not supposed to be released or seen, yet they are seen. The (ad) agency can deny the footage was intended to be released."
Research suggests that comprehensive viral campaigns generate a greater buzz than traditional online advertising alone. But even advocates of viral marketing concede it can't go too far over the top.