First lesson of viral video: No monkey business

Apes with assault rifles are just a bad idea: That’s the lesson 20th Century Fox (s NWS) wanted to convey with a viral video it published on YouTube(s goog) last week. The video shows a group of soldiers from an unidentified African country having some fun with a chimpanzee. Then one of the soldiers hands the ape an AK-47, and the animal takes aim at the soldiers.


The clip is a viral video ad for the upcoming Rise of the Planet of the Apes movie, complete with a semi-authentic and amateurish look and some subtle branding that identifies it as content of the “20th Century Fox Research Library.” And so far it has been a success, if you only measure view counts: The video has attracted more than 4.5 million views since being published last Wednesday.

But a look at the YouTube comment section tells a different story: A substantial number of commenters take the opportunity to drop the n-word, compare black people to monkeys or publish other kinds of racial slurs. At times, it seemed like almost every fifth comment was demeaning. Some comments have been removed or marked as spam, but commenting is continuing at such a rapid pace that plenty of racist comments still make it to the site.

The use of the video as a viral marketing tool is already receiving a fair dose of criticism, with Brand Channel blogger Abe Sauer musing:

“Nobody is calling the News Corp.-owned studio racist, but given all the potential directions it could have gone with a viral video, to leverage already existing stereotypes about Africans seems terribly misguided.”

I have to agree; the video seems like a lapse in judgement on part of 20th Century Fox. (The company didn’t respond to a request for comment for this post.) But more importantly, it’s a prime example of misunderstanding what virality actually means.

Often, companies believe viral campaigns are little more than campaigns that utilize the audience to spread a message: like a traditional commercial, but cheaper. But that’s only part of the equation. The tricky thing about a viral video is that it’s out of your control once you release it into the wild. It might spread like wildfire; it might mutate; and it might turn against you.

This is especially true in an age when users aren’t just consumers anymore, but have increasingly become curators, remixers and producers of media as well. A brand has to be comfortable with its message not only being spread, but also changed and potentially even misunderstood. Going viral means playing with fire, and you don’t want to do that if your goods are already easily flammable.

Another company that learned this lesson the hard way was GM (s gm). The auto company enabled consumers to produce their own commercials for its Chevy Tahoe SUV in 2006, only to find eco-conscious consumers using the campaign’s online video editor to produce countless anti-SUV ads. SUVs were simply too controversial of a product for a viral campaign of this caliber.

The same may be true for the Planet of the Apes franchise. Regardless of whether you believe that the original Planet of the Apes movies were racist or a deconstruction of racism in America, a movie with a racially charged story line may just be the wrong candidate for a viral video campaign, period. And if a brand does go forward with a viral campaign, then it has to be able to deal with it and anticipate the consequences from this type of backlash.