What’s Behind the Most Patient Viral Marketing Campaign of All Time?

Sep 19, 2013 at 4:30 PM ET

For three years, the YouTube channel Pronunciation Book taught non-English speakers how to pronounce important words like Beyoncé and Lululemon. The channel’s earnest charm garnered a following that even included native English speakers. But starting July 9, Pronunciation Book took a dark and abrupt turn, departing from its regular programming. An ominous video called  “How To Pronounce 77” issued a warning that “something is going to happen in 77 days,” followed by 15 seconds of silence and Morse code–like clicking noises. A menacing countdown video has been posted every day since then. We now have only five more days before…something…happens.

The strange countdown videos made humans on the Internet very curious. Was it the announcement of a terrorist attack? A message from the Syrian Electronic Army? The end of days—Mayan Calendar, be damned? Members of 4chanReddit and other forums immediately investigated. They looked into the cryptic lines of dialogue that prefaced each countdown, including, “They weren’t in the mood for a corporate party” and “Dinner in the boardroom…what time is it?”

These odd sentences were pieced together, ripped apart and analyzed by a group of strangers trying on a detective’s shoes. When these strangers timed the silences at the end of each video, then ran them through a spectrograph, they formed an image of a man in a suit, pointing a finger at viewers. The word “tomorrow” covered his face. But what did it mean?

Competing conspiracy theories emerged, and were compiled in an ever-growing, crowdsourced Google Doc.

To make matters weirder, a Tumblr called “Let’s Talk About Systems” emerged on Sept. 4, with creepy, frenetic GIFs featuring the dialogue from the countdown videos. Since these GIFs are often posted moments before the videos, they are presumed to be official.

The Daily Dot had one of the strongest theories. Writers Gaby Dunn and Aja Romano posited that 77 Days is an Alternate Reality Game (ARG), a marketing effort to build up excitement for a 2014 Battlestar Galactica reboot. Dunn and Romano argued that pieced-together bits from Pronunciation Book’s videos describe scenarios from the sci-fi series’ most recent iteration, and the time lines match.

But when Dunn was interviewed by On the Media on Tuesday, she revealed that, sometime after posting her Battlestar theory, she had actually reached someone behind Pronunciation Book. Dunn knows what is happening in five days! But she’s not telling anyone. Dunn wouldn’t confirm or deny whether her Battlestar theory was correct. What she did concede is that 77 Days is a marketing campaign, and not something more…life threatening.

The idea of “viral” marketing gained popularity in the ’90s. It’s a method of promotion that influences customers to market a product themselves by telling their friends about it. Douglass Rushkoff was one of the first to write about online viral marketing in his 1994 book Media Virus: Hidden Agendas in Popular Culture. He described it as a message being presented to a susceptible audience in a way that resonates enough to infect them like a virus and spread to others.

We spoke to Rushkoff about whether this applied to Pronunciation Book’s campaign.

“I don’t know if this counts as viral…as I don’t really see memes in a shell, contagiously replicating because of a cultural immune response,” he says. “It is more like an ARG , where people explore and discuss what’s there in order to find out what it might be. Maybe more like Blair Witch, which used a fake [website] to make people think the movie was true.”

Rushkoff is referring to the 1999 film The Blair Witch Project. In case you managed to miss the hoopla, here’s a brief synopsis of the plot: Three student filmmakers disappear into the woods while making a documentary about the Blair Witch. Their footage is found 10 years later, and that footage is what people got to see in theaters.

During the film’s limited release, those theaters were packed. People wanted to see what they thought was real footage of real missing persons. But it was actually one of the first, and most effective, viral internet marketing campaigns.

ARG-esque marketing has taken off in the music industry, too. Case in point: Kanye West’s latest album, Yeezus. Avoiding formal promotion, or even an announcement about his new album, Kanye simply tweeted the words, “June Eighteenth.” Two weeks later, the music video for the albums single “New Slaves” was released—but not in the typical way. The video was projected onto buildings in 10 American cities, prompting thousands of fans to record them on their iPhones and post them online. The next day, he performed the single on Saturday Night Live. Kanye had successfully amped up buzz surrounding his album without any formal promotion. By the time it was released (well, leaked, then released), everyone was talking about it.

“The object of the game in marketing is to do things that get what is known as ‘secondary media,'” Rushkoff says. “Secondary media is news stories ‘about’ the campaign. They don’t cost anything. So if you can create an ad or PR phenomenon that gets coverage elsewhere, you are getting a whole lot of coverage for very little money. Plus, the coverage is more ‘organic,’ in that it’s part of editorial, not part of the advertising.”

While 77 Days is not the first viral marketing campaign, it may be, as The Daily Dot noted, the most patient. Pronunciation Book was created on April 14, 2010, and clues were laced throughout more than three years of light-hearted ESL training videos. That’s a lot of work to put into a marketing campaign for…whatever it is.