Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Who “Deserves to Die": The Strategy (and Risks) Behind the Successful Viral Campaign

Hipsters Deserve to Die. Crazy Old Aunts Deserve to Die. Cat Lovers Deserve to Die.

These were the provocative messages of a guerilla ad campaign launched recently by the combined offices from Milwaukee, Chicago and New York City of Laughlin Constable for their client… well, we will get to that in a moment. I had the chance to interview Denise Kohnke, Senior Vice President of Strategy and Business Development at Laughlin Constable, about the campaign, the precautions and the outcome.

Of course, none of these people deserve to die (although some hipsters are darn annoying), and that was the intent of the campaign. Not that everyone caught the intent. As the posters appeared in cities across the nation, some folks took offense. That’s all in the game when a brand launches a shock campaign—some people get annoyed, the word spreads, and then comes the big reveal, hopefully accompanied by acceptance, interest and even more word of mouth. This campaign’s message succeeded in getting wide attention everywhere from Time Magazine to Huffington Post to Perez Hilton.

Screen capture from http://noonedeservestodie.org/
The reveal for this campaign, when the Lung Cancer Alliance was disclosed as the brand behind the program, came on No One Deserves to Die, a terrific site launched as the hub of this viral campaign. (Visit the site and scroll down the home page to see the campaign message exposed in eye-catching infographic-style animations.) The buzz was so great, the agency moved forward the planned date of the unveiling. Kohnke reports, “We moved up the reveal because of all the conversation that was taking place already about the campaign. We had people's attention and we wanted to make sure our real message was heard while audiences were still engaged and listening.”

The Lung Cancer Alliance didn’t use shock tactics for the heck of it but to make a point. “Many people believe that if you have lung cancer you did something to deserve it,” notes the site. “It sounds absurd, but it’s true. Lung cancer doesn’t discriminate and neither should you.”

Point taken, but while the campaign worked to catch attention and open minds, I still wondered about the risks. As social media and the importance of Word of Mouth grows, these sorts of shock campaigns run the risk of backfiring. A recent shock campaign to raise support for taxes for the Troy, MI library rubbed some folks the wrong way—including a local librarian—after it used a fake “book burning” event to create attention. And other shock campaigns have seemingly done more to harm the brand than help, such as Sony PSP’s racial-themed “Black and White” ads and the mobile campaign for Resident Evil that convinced people their phones were infected with a virus.

The agency was confident the message would be shocking, but not so much as to create a negative outcome. “Our campaign was intended to be bold, intrusive, thought provoking and a conversation starter,” notes Kohnke . “We wanted to show the absurdity of generalizing a hatred for a group of people based on a certain trait or characteristic. We selected groups that people may already have an unconscious or conscious bias against. It's hitting home to many because of that, but lung cancer patients and their families DO experience this. It's real for them and not just a hypothetical bias.”

The client wasn’t overly concerned about the risks, either. Kohnke shares that they were ready to shock people out of apathy. “Lung cancer has far too long been relegated to quiet conversation and hushed discussions because many who have been diagnosed with lung cancer have been humiliated, blamed and made to feel like it was their fault because of lung cancer's association with tobacco. The stigma has been alive for years despite voices calling for its end. It was time for bold action. We have to end the stigma in order to make real change in survival rates.”

The results validate the campaign strategy. Kohnke says, “Our social mentions and site traffic really began to peak after Yahoo.com picked up the story. Looking specifically at the #NoOneDeservesToDie hashtag alone, using Sysomos, we see that a majority of the conversation is quite positive with only 4 percent of those tweets negative.”

Not surprisingly, the successful campaign also delivered a great deal of site traffic: “Over the past three days alone, Lung Cancer Alliance saw as much traffic to the landing page as the organization usually sees in half a year,” reports Kohnke .

And the Lung Cancer Alliance hopes to get even more benefit from this catchy campaign. “We expect social media and public relations support to drive the conversation for a long time based on this campaign theme. Capitol Hill may vote on the Lung Cancer Mortality Reduction act this fall, and Lung Cancer Awareness month is November.” Kohnke notes that Laughlin Constable is working to ensure this campaign will continue to “fuel conversation about a disease that has been so stigmatized that people are ashamed they have it and lawmakers choose not to appropriate funding to seek a cure for it.”

Laughlin Constable and the Lung Cancer Alliance have done a nice job of making a point and raising awareness. Let’s see if it creates a wave of change that gets lawmakers’ attention later this year.

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