Viral marketing, the meme and 1982

One of the great attractions of social media is that it offers the possibility, through re-Tweets or shares, to reach millions of people with a single marketing message for little or no media cost.

Viral marketing and the meme are the holy grail of social business communications empowered by a technology that is barely a decade old.

Almost 3 decades ago I worked with a business that was sorely in need of social media. They had a great story, innovative products, some celebrity endorsements but sadly, little or no media budget.

I was working in a London agency called FCO and the client we were working for was hoping to enter the sports shoe market in the UK.

They were called Nike.

We had a fairly simple strategy. Nike had struck deals with some of the world’s top athletes and sportsmen. These people would wear Nike shoes and their names could be used to promote the brand. Celebrity endorsement.

So we had to tell the world about this but we had practically no money to buy media. (Oh Twitter, where were you?)

The plan was to produce posters and put them up in the sports shops that sold Nike shoes. Simple enough.

So we needed a small poster that said John McEnroe, a famously brilliant tennis player, wore Nike.

mcenroe retouch_1

Which we duly did and distributed to sports shops where they would be seen by potential customers and, more importantly, influencers. (Oh Pinterest, where were you?)

Job done? No.

We started to get requests from the shops for more copies of the poster.

‘Why?’ we asked. ‘What are you doing with them?’ we enquired. ‘What happened to the ones we sent you?’

It turned out that people visiting the shop liked the poster so much that they had begged, bought or simply stolen it. So we printed a load more posters and had them delivered once again. (Oh Facebook shares, re-Tweets and re-pins, how we needed you.)

So in 1982, we produced a marketing message that was shared by eventually thousands of people – hung on their bedroom walls, no less – for little or no media cost without the use of digital technology or the web.

How did that happen?

Well, McEnroe wasn’t just famously good, he was also famously rude so the poster we ran wasn’t actually the one above; the one that conforms to the social media rules of not trying to be so crass as to sell, but just give out the relevant information.

The poster, that was admired so much that people peeled it off the walls, was this one.


And so, 3 decades on, I think that sometimes we get so obsessed and overawed with the technology of digital marketing and social business that we forget the power of the idea.

The ability to easily share an idea, an image, a piece of content is only of value if the idea itself is of value to the recipient.

Long live the idea. (Oh, and long live technology too.)

N.B. The McEnroe poster wasn’t done by me. It was done by two clever gentlemen who worked in the office next door. Copywriter: Chris Herring. Art Director: Ian Potter. But it illustrates the story perfectly and so I couldn’t resist.

I did plenty of work for Nike in those days and you can find some of it here.


About the Author

SIMON MINCHIN CREATIVE DIRECTOR I like to make a difference. I like to work with clients rather than for them. I think my role is to see the wood for the trees; to make thinking, communicating and doing as simple as possible, rather than as clever as possible.

One Comment

  1. Peter Delaunay Says :
    Posted on December 4, 2013 at 9:07 am

    Well said – the difference between the ‘beautiful’ ad and the ad that makes you smile, wonder, and especially – feel. I watched a Guardian montage of this year’s Christmas ads and it seemed like a half dozen companies were working off the same one half of an idea. Is anyone printing off ‘memes’ and sticking them up on their bedroom walls ? Although I guess turning them into a screensaver is today’s equivalent.

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