Microsoft pukes one up

Analyst Opinion – In the YouTube era, the ultimate sign of credibility is for one of our videos to go viral. Who among us hasn’t secretly wished to be the next Susan Boyle – well, except for the frumpiness and post-fame meltdowns – or lonelygirl15? We all want our 15 minutes of fame, and shooting a video on a cheap pocket camera or camcorder has become the new strategy of choice for achieving it. Sometimes that isn’t so easy and even Microsoft learned that.

Regular folks in search of fame aren’t alone. Major companies, recognizing how much time we now spend trolling through YouTube, are catching on and increasingly using the tools of the viral trade to get their message out. This makes sense, as you need to be where your audience is if you want to reach them, and continuing to use channels that today’s audiences have all but abandoned is a recipe for failure.

But hipness has a price. Like the balding, gold chain-wearing fiftysomething guy at the hottest new club in town, you run the risk of falling on your face in the process if you fail to appreciate the subtleties of the new medium.

Our latest victim: Microsoft. It recently released a series of videos designed to raise the profile of its latest browser, Internet Explorer 8. One of these productions, designed to highlight the InPrivate feature that keeps other folks from seeing where you’ve surfed – sometimes called the porn feature – starred a woman who, after seeing what her husband had been viewing on his laptop, promptly tossed her cookies, and presumably everything else, on the kitchen floor. After he slipped and fell on said floor, she continued to hurl on him. The now-infamous vomit video, hosted by Dean Cain, mixed in-your-face graphic reality with what was supposed to be a funny take on a new browser feature.

Unfortunately, it didn’t work. Viewers, incensed at the graphic reality of the video, criticized Microsoft for crossing the line and have been burning up blogs, Twitter streams and online forums since the video first went online last month. The object of their ire has been pulled from YouTube’s ie8videos channel and other resources being used by Microsoft. The video indeed went viral, but with enough of a negative backlash that Microsoft finds itself wishing it had chosen another theme.

While I want to congratulate Microsoft for diving head-first into a new medium, I wish they hadn’t abandoned common sense in the process. I find it hard to believe that no one on the marketing team ever raised a hand and said this was beyond tasteless. Which is the root of the problem when straight-to-Internet video production removes the checks and balances built into more traditional television production methods. Multibillion dollar, publicly traded, respected companies have no excuses when their marketing processes result in moronic fare like this. We expect better, and Microsoft shareholders deserve better.

Microsoft’s experience holds some hard-earned lessons for other companies with dreams of viral success. Namely not to get so carried away with being cool that they forget to apply basic common sense.

Carmi Levy is a Canadian technology analyst and journalist covered with scars from his years leading IT help desks and managing software development projects for big bad insurance companies. He comments extensively in a wide range of media, and works closely with clients to help them leverage technology and social media tools and processes to drive their business.