Coke’s phoney happiness machine is a fail for me

In this guest posting, Tony Richardson argues that the Coke Happiness Machine viral sucks.

The folks at Coke have created a viral video and as hoped it’s being circulated worldwide … but for all the wrong reasons. The main one being that it is possibly the lamest viral ever created.  

Harsh criticism? I don’t think so.

Just as we view a TV commercial with a certain set of expectations so too do we view viral videos. TV spots are selling us something that might use a joke, or charm, or a claim to sell the benefit. After about age five we realise the difference between entertainment and sales.

Even not very entertaining TV ads can get into our heads by simple repetition. But of course that repetition has to be paid for.

Then someone invented viral videos. Originally these were simply charming films starring real people or animals doing funny-ish things. The guy hugging folks on Pitt St, the numa numa guy dancing in front of his screen, and more recently Darren the waving goat.

All a bit of fun and a diversion from real life worries and cares.

When millions of folks not only watched these videos but also passed them to friends, marketers became interested. “Hmmm could we get into this free media viral thing?”.

Well the answer proves to be “possibly, if you forget the TV rules and follow the three simple Viral rules.

1. TVCs are all branding. Viral hides the branding. See the Kobe Bryant car jump viral ad for Nike. Count how many times the brand is mentioned. You won’t need many fingers.

Looks authentic.

2. TVCs are usually shot like movies. Good movies. Lighting, editing, cuts etc. Virals are usually one shot, one camera, no clever lighting, angles or editing. WatchKobe again. His little cousin could have shot it.

Looks authentic.

3. TVCs are little stories or messages. Beginning, middle, end. Virals are events. Watch Kobe again. Jumping a car. “Far out man. How’d he do that?” (Well he cheated a bit, but that’s another story)

Still looks authentic.

Coke broke all three viral rules and probably more. Too much branding, shot too professionally, strange fake story with people who are obviously acting. Then they titled it ‘Happiness Machine’. Ouch.

Viral videos need to be very light on branding, look homemade and show an event. That’s the way they have evolved and what people read as authentic. This spot is the opposite of authentic.

And as a final sign that the guys at Atlanta really don’t get it, they ask that we pass the video on … y’know, because it’s viral.

Well, I am passing it on, but as an example of how NOT to do viral.


  1. mumbrella
    31 Jan 10
    6:06 pm

  2. While I agree with Tony that it does look a tad fake in parts, it’s also worth noting that the video has been watched more than 1.2m times on YouTube in the last three weeks, and been rated nearly 5000 times, with a five star average. So it does seem to be finding an audience.


    Tim – Mumbrella

  3. alexander
    31 Jan 10
    6:19 pm

  4. It would seem the one cardinal rule the Coke ‘viral’ breaks is to be successful.

    There are no ‘rules’ for viral videos, except perhaps ‘don’t do something as crass and dumb as Microsoft’s Windows 7 Launch Party’. Or maybe, ‘don’t be mind-numbingly insincere in what you do’.

    People share slick video that’s been shot for advertising purposes (how many times have you been sent the ‘banned’ Pepsi machine ad where the kid stands on Coke cans to get to his Pepsi. Or vice versa – I can never remember which) if they’re amusing. The one ‘rule’ is make something amusing or ‘totally, like, awesome’, surely.

  5. threebillion
    31 Jan 10
    7:54 pm

  6. Viral isn’t the name of a type of video. Viral is the name describing the process of distribution. Any type of video can go viral, even videos which look like ads.

    The Coke video is a clever interpretation of their Open Happiness communication strategy and going by the number of views…it has gone viral.

  7. Peter Williams
    31 Jan 10
    8:36 pm

  8. “Open Happiness”?

    After watching a group of blissed out actors worshipping a vending machine, people feel inspired to go out and buy carbonated sugar water?

    Mencken would be proud.

  9. Helsinki
    31 Jan 10
    9:10 pm

  10. Do Americans really need anymore Pizza?!

  11. Anon.
    31 Jan 10
    9:47 pm

  12. What a silly article. Evian baby’s more than went viral with millions of hits – it was highly produced and highly branded – There are loads more examples.

    The above article is so uneducated and silly that Tim I wonder if perhaps you should be making better decisions about who u let write on this site.

  13. Alana
    31 Jan 10
    11:45 pm

  14. This ad would have been fine on TV. On the internet, there are about a million better videos to watch. Surely Coke have the $ to find someone that could do some fantastic virals, rather than ones that rely on a brand to make it go viral.

    I am tempted to say a lot of the 1,254,100 views are industry professionals, but then the first 3 comments I saw were:

    joeywhitesox00 (1 week ago)
    me too why ist anyone giving me coke
    XxBelkYxX (1 week ago) +48 Reply
    damn i really want coke now
    WiNDiR666 (1 week ago) +62 Reply
    wow xD.. I want coke now…

    and at the end of the day that may be what matters.

  15. Chris Walton
    1 Feb 10
    8:03 am

  16. I watched the video before reading the article or any of the comments, and I found myself smiling.

    Perhaps I don’t watch enough ‘viral’ to know how this rates compared to everything else out there. But you know what? I don’t really care – either how it is labelled or where I have viewed it.

  17. mumbrella
    1 Feb 10
    9:12 am

  18. Thanks for the advice, anon.

    If you could let me have a list of people who you feel are entitled to express a view then that would be most helpful.

    Tim – Mumbrella

  19. Chris Walton
    1 Feb 10
    9:34 am

  20. I watched the video prior to reading the article or any of the comments comments. All I know is that it made me smile.

    Perhaps I don’t watch enough ‘viral’ to put it into context, but you know what, I don’t really care – either what it is labelled or where I viewed it.

  21. WillemRT
    1 Feb 10
    10:06 am

  22. 1.2 million hits = fail?

    Not a bad way to fail IMHO

    Rival DR Pepper tries its own viral and gets 18k

  23. Larry
    1 Feb 10
    10:19 am

  24. “Viral rules” hahaha oh mercy

  25. Lauren Cassar
    1 Feb 10
    10:42 am

  26. Aren’t we talking to ourselves a bit here?

    I would like to know how many consumers actually care about who produced an interesting piece of content and whether it is commercially orientated or not.

    If it is an entertaining piece of content, irrespective of how polished or ‘fake’ it is, it will take on a life of its own and start to spread.

  27. Wolfie Rankin
    1 Feb 10
    1:53 pm

  28. If they’d just kept it as a vendor, fine… but next thing there was a person in there handing out pizzas and really long rolls filled with… bacon? salad? I don’t remember a huge hole cut into the wall for that, and there must have been, that’s when the illusion broke for me. still it was good fun, I rather liked it.

  29. Clare
    1 Feb 10
    2:40 pm

  30. There are a few things that caught my attention about this post. Firstly, the sentence “…. follow the three simple Viral rules” – if someone can please give me rules on how to produce successful viral i will give them a million bucks!

    Secondly “The main one being that it is possibly the lamest viral ever created. ” – i don’t see anyone claiming to have 1.2millions views on ANYTHING they have done? (myself included here)

    And last but not least the whole premise of viral – it can’t be forced, it can’t be pushed, you can only produce something that you hope grabs the attention of your audience and they pass it on freely – whether we like it or not. Isn’t that why viral video is such a beautiful thing?

  31. Ed
    1 Feb 10
    3:09 pm

  32. Tony, here are two ‘rules’ for viral video success:

    1. A lot of people have to view it (over a million is really, really good)
    2. People have to associate your brand with the video (just like advertising)

    What’s the point of doing a viral video if no one associates your brand with it???????

  33. Adrian
    1 Feb 10
    5:10 pm

  34. Sorry Tim, Anon makes a good point. Your audience would like to consider you an expert. Contributions made for the sake of contibuting do affect your personal brand. Probably no need to be so defensive.

  35. David@luvyawork
    1 Feb 10
    5:41 pm

  36. Age (internet age, at least) old question: is it viral only because of how it gets out and who sees it, or is creative style a factor?

    Mind goes back to the Terry Tate (Office Linebacker) Reebok ads run in the US years ago. They were ads (run on commercial TV) made by Reebok that “crossed over”. They went viral; they were in emails being sent across the globe, got seen by a ton of people. They were a scream. Reebok got glued tight to consumers brains. They were very slick productions so does that disqualify them from being viral?

    I’m with @Ed on those 2 metrics. I also think that creative execution, entertainment value and that “you gotta see this” switch being flicked is what sends something viral and not only whether it looks slick, expensive, staged or paid for.

  37. Rob
    1 Feb 10
    5:55 pm

  38. Viral is an outcome, not a strategy. Like email spam, the ability to produce on the cheap and publish on the web for free has a lot of people thinking this is a good way to go. All that’s happened is there’s so much crap out there you really need to produce something outstanding to get attention and maybe pass-on.

    And who has set the benchmark for global success in this field? What’s a good outcome? 1m+ globally doesn’t seem a lot for the effort and cost involved.

  39. Beaudacious
    1 Feb 10
    5:58 pm

  40. Rated over 5,000 times as 5 star? Ya reckon there’s more than 5,000 employees at Coke?

  41. Beaudacious
    1 Feb 10
    6:03 pm

  42. That was a dumb point Beaudacious.

    Saying that, I still think regardless of intent, to echo the point by @Clare – 1.2m hits is a success in my book

  43. Spunky1972
    1 Feb 10
    6:23 pm

  44. I didn’t think they seemed like they were acting. And if they were, they were very convincing

  45. mumbrella
    2 Feb 10
    9:07 am

  46. Hi Adrian (5.10pm)

    No need to be defensive from me – I didn’t write the piece. Indeed, as I made clear in the first comment I didn’t necessarily even agree with it.

    However, I don’t want all of our guest posts to only reflect my view – that would be a bit boring. Tony’s experienced enough to take a view, and I’m interested to hear what he has to say.


    Tim – Mumbrella

  47. Tony Richardson
    2 Feb 10
    11:50 am

  48. At the risk of infuriating some readers further I have a little more to add.

    A great example of what I’m trying to say can be found in Mumbrella in the News section. The piece highlighting Cabana Boys’ clever Arts Council viral ad illustrates my point.

    1. Branding is left until right at the very end. Most free to air TVCs have branding all the way through.

    2. The shooting, while done by Briony Forbes, one of the best in the business, is restrained and far from slick.

    3. And finally the whole thing is an ‘event’ that lasts two whole minutes.

    Try selling that to Coke (or nearly any marketer who is paying for the media) as a TV spot and see long the meeting lasts.

  49. Gezza
    2 Feb 10
    12:24 pm

  50. Tony:

    The Arts coiuncil spot is BORING! I cant’ imagine anyone volutarilty sending this to a friend. Unless of course they want to show how to scam the arts council into giving a grant for some meaningless artistic endeavour. I guess the people who produced/wrote this are – like you – experts in the field of viral.

  51. Jeremy
    2 Feb 10
    4:08 pm

  52. Assuming this viral was speaking to US college kids only then I think it’s pretty successful. If I was judging it in an award show against the recent VW Fun Theory work ( it would not compete. Why? Because the execution isn’t as good and the idea that little less original.

    All that said, kudos to Tony for a sound argument on how and when to use viral media. The coke idea would have worked better if they actually recruited consumers in placing the free coke in their dorms. It’s not too late for them to do that either.

  53. Lachyw
    2 Feb 10
    5:00 pm

  54. Tony Richardson’s website says, and I quote:

    “we do NOT use cookie cutter presenters or formats”

    along with a nice picture of a crossed out ginger bread man cookie cutter.

    But here Tony is telling us all “successful” virals are cut from the same cloth (or is that cookie?).

    Totally agree with all who’ve said that the true measure of success is… success. And on all the logical KPIs, this was pretty successful.

  55. Lachyw
    2 Feb 10
    5:23 pm

  56. btw Tony Richardson are you on crack?

    That Arts Council piece is shot FAR more professionally than the Coke piece – time-lapse photography, camera shots from overhead, artistic angles and cut aways (I have no idea what you actually call this stuff in “the industry”). Plus a hip soundtrack. I’d say it is SUPER SLICK, and not particularly restrained from a creative perspective.

    You really do seem utterly out of your depth on this one.

  57. JacketandCoat
    3 Feb 10
    1:40 pm

  58. Just have to add another example of a viral ad that doesn’t conform to Tony’s ‘rules’….

    Pretty popular and definitely a viral in that is was released on the internet way before it ever went to TV.

    Also looks pretty professionally shot to my untrained eye…

  59. David@luvyawork
    3 Feb 10
    2:31 pm

  60. @JacketandCoat,

    The Carlton Draught pieces were near the first ones where I got the concept of viral bed down in my head.

    They’re still a benchmark, in my opinion, for the kind of communication that will be passed on, thereby making it “viral”.

  61. Rae
    4 Feb 10
    12:21 am

  62. If the agency had intentionally manipulated the video to mimic the viral videos (shoddy production values, lack of branding, no cheesy happy message) then we would all be criticising the lack of disclosure.

    As much as i think ‘Happiness Machine’ is a lame title, I still watched (and enjoyed) the video from start to finish. And for a digital social media campaign, i would say 1.3million plus youtube hits with 5000+ 5 star ratings is a pretty good outcome.

  63. Carl Uvesten
    4 Feb 10
    3:45 pm

  64. This Coke ad defintely breaks the rules that used to apply for viral, but probably for the better. The initial brand virals that came around looked authentic. With Ray Ban, Levis, Morrissey etc we have rapidly become cynical about anything that looks too good to be true or in anyway can connect to a brand. Even Kochie on 7’s Sunrise is now having doubts over certain YouTube videos they’re showing.

    Everything evolves. The old viral format might be dead. It only lasted for so long. It might even cause a backlash nowadays. As much as I did enjoy them, i don’t anymore. At least this Coke video is completely open and honest and is more focused on the idea/message rather than execution.

    I still think it’s a lame video, but not because it’s breaking old “viral rules”.

    Virus evolves. That’s why our immune system can’t keep up, causing us to catch the flu each year. The same must apply to marketing.

  65. Tony Richardson
    5 Feb 10
    12:31 pm

  66. Good point Carl.

  67. Stig Richards
    16 Feb 10
    4:19 pm

  68. Just not that bad. It’s an ad without music or a super.

    I was more concerned it would somehow detract from ‘Happiness Factory’ and it didn’t so that’s OK.

    Great? No.

    Unsuccessful? No.

    Rubbish? No.

    Worth an article and subsequent discussion? Yes.

    Was I a bit late to the discussion? Absolutely.



  1. When is a viral video not a viral video?