About a third of my marketing students had seen Dove’s new Real Beauty Sketches campaign by the start of our class last Wednesday. That’s pretty remarkable. The spots weren’t yet 24 hours old. And Dove had probably not yet spent a cent on traditional media.

But as you probably already know, this 3-minute commercial went super viral instantly. Shared a bazzillion times through Facebook and Twitter.

After playing it in class it was easy to see why. The stories of women discovering how others described them as more beautiful than they described themselves brought several of my seniors to tears. I asked if any of them felt manipulated by its naked emotionalism. None claimed to.

But then I played a couple of other spots of this type – long form videos that play to our emotions by exploiting cultural anxieties in order to generate social shares.

First up was Expedia’s 3-minute-and-20-second Find Your Understanding spot from last October. It featured the “west coast” marriage of two women and an “east coast” father’s efforts to come to terms with it.

The students sniffed a bit at this one too, but not because they were crying. Instead they had started to smell a rat. They liked the story, but asked, “What’s it have to do with Expedia?”

Next I played Chipolte’s multi-award-winning 2-minute-and-30-second Back to Start spot from 2011 (see how it was made).

I knew from project work we had done as a class that most of the students were very much in tune with this spot’s anti-factory-farm sentiment. But by this point, they’d caught on. Comments like this started popping out – “marketers are desperate … the only thing they have left is content marketing that exploits our emotions.”

[UPDATE: Check out this Funny or Die Chipolte Parody.]

These are the same students that mostly loved Dodge’s (sappy to my 70s-era cynicism) God Made a Farmer Superbowl spot.

Call me the proud professor.

Since Wednesday (I’m writing on a Friday), the popular press seems to have turned on Dove. In Salon, Erin Keane asks social media users to “Stop posting that Dove ad: ‘Real beauty’ campaign is not feminist”. She writes, “The ‘Real Beauty’ campaign is almost a parody of itself at this point — the emo string quartet, the wise, vaguely sinister ‘expert,’ the soft lighting that’s straight out of a Real Simple photo shoot.”

At the Huffington Post, the same site that just 2 days before had called ‘Real Beauty Sketches,’ “The Most Powerful Ad Campaign We’ve Seen,” on Thursday noted, “The more “beautiful” facial representations seemed to all be thinner and younger-looking. If that is the crux of beauty, then I guess we’re all pretty screwed by that obnoxiously inexorable bastard called time.”

More damning (and more telling and way more funny) I think was the remarkably well-produced parody forwarded to me by a student last night.

From powerful to parody in 72 hours.

So, are we done here? Has the long-form viral tearjerker, which has been with us now for less than 2 years, already run its course? After the widening critique of Dove’s ‘Real Beauty Sketches’ spreads generally, will similar emotional appeals begin to fall flat? Will people get tired of being manipulated and stop sharing?

Perhaps. But maybe us marketers just need to chill a bit with the social cause thing.

Coca-Cola has been on the content marketing bandwagon big time for a couple of years … without backlash (as far as I’ve been able to determine). Its social marketing strategy is public. In fact its social marketing strategy is itself a popular YouTube video (see Content 2020 Part I and <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fiwIq-8GWA8″>Part II).

Coke’s efforts, like the above Friend’s Day Friendship Machine spot, play to our emotions in ways similar to the spots produced by Dove, Expedia, Chipolte and Dodge. But instead of trying to exploit some cultural anxiety or political debate, Coke attaches itself to more universal human emotions – sharing, cooperation, friendship. The results may not be as dramatic as those enjoyed by Dove, but are every bit as viral over the long term.

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