Last week, Millward Brown produced their top ten hints on maximizing the chance of a brand video going viral - there's info on the report here and here. It's a pretty remarkable read as I think it captures a lot of what is wrong with research today and, more broadly, a view of how communication works and our ability to create stuff that is 'viral'.
The first warning sign is the assertion that of the 102 ads tested, less than 15% were viral hits (ie watched more than 5,000 times per week on youtube in the US). Yes, this was a test of what TV ads became 'viral', not content in its broadest sense (and seems a far higher number than the reality of things that really begin to spread and take hold through culture). 'Viral' is defined by times viewed, not its 'spreadability'. At best, it's a study about amplification of an ad through unpaid media. A lot of the tips also seem to focus on 'tricks' to buy virality, rather than trying to understand the nature of things that spread.
Then they do their usual trick of saying that often 'viral success' has little to do with what really matters - 'persuasion'. So, MB are still hanging on to an increasingly discredited view that advertising works only (or at least primarily) through persuasion and that the decoding of commercial messages is critical, not whether the brand is able to play a bigger role in culture (perhaps by creating it).
Finally there is a brilliant moment of have your cake and eat it. After trotting out their usual ingredients of successful advertising (and if you've done any MB debriefs you will know these by heart) - awareness index, brand impression, use of celebrity - they then have the audacity to talk about "keeping your fingers crossed". Arguably, the best advice ever given by Millward Brown but not one that I would want after paying tens of thousands of dollars for research predicated and sold on the power of a predictive in market score.
It's research like this that is increasingly to blame for the increasingly drunken way we make decisions (the old Ogilvy adage of people using research like drunkards use lampposts - for support, not illumination) and our attempts to predict the unpredictable. It may be 'nice' to have a number for the board meeting, but it is often a number that bears little resemblance to reality.