What Kanye & Taylor Swift Taught Us About Going Viral


fakeWe don’t trust marketing. We’ve been lied to and taken advantage of so many times that we don’t know what’s true, what’s manufactured or even who it is that’s trying to get something from us. To protect ourselves, we question everything and everyone.

Unless you spent last night in the same bubble Rae apparently did, you heard about Kanye. You heard about it, you yelled out about what a freakin’ douchebag he is, and then you started questioning its legitimacy. I mean, surely it was planned, right? Even if Taylor didn’t know about it (did you see that poor child’s face?), Kanye knew it was going to happen. MTV must have known. Kanye got on that stage far too easily. Reports of what happened were made public too quickly, complete with real video.

Even if everyone didn’t know, someone did. Which is why it failed.

But, of course, MTV is known for the drama, especially at its award shows.

  • In 1984, Madonna rolled around the floor singing about virgins.
  • In 1992, Nirvana guitarist Krist Novoselic made headlines when he threw his guitar over this head…and then watched it hit him in the face.
  • In 1994, Michael Jackson appeared on stage with new wife Lisa Marie Presley…and then made out with her. #birthcontrol
  • In 1995, a-not-all-there Courtney Love hijacked Madonna’s live interview with Kurt Loder and caused a scene.
  • In 2000, Tim Commerford of Rage Against The Machine forgot to take his crazy pills and began scaling the scenery, with Fred Durst daring him to jump.
  • In 2007, the Britney train wreck continued with her half-asleep performance of “Gimme More”.

We are a culture that loves drama. But all of that was real drama. It was very different from this summer’s VMAs Bruno/Emimen stunt. That wasn’t real. That was a gimmick. And it backfired. It made people angry.

Gimmicks hurt brands. The more you try to get attention by stealing it, the more consumers will resent you and lose trust in what you’re offering. No one likes being tricked. When you overly plan viral, you end up insulting your audience’s intelligence. You alienate them. You offend them.

You fail.

As a brand, you need to find a way to create GENUINE viral content on a regular basis. You do that by being unexpected and by taking advantage of opportunities when they present themselves.

When Katrina hit, Walmart reacted fast and put themselves at the forefront of the disaster. They earned the title of “hero” by stepping in to donate supplies to those affected and lending a hand wherever they could. Walmart, a hero. A company usually attacked for stealing jobs and hurting our economy. Suddenly, in that moment, they’re loved. Imagine how the story would have changed had it been discovered 24 hours later that Walmart actually caused Katrina with the help of a huge weather machine and some good lighting. It wouldn’t have been quite the same. It would have been a gimmick and manufactured. We would have shunned it.

There are opportunities to be great and viral within your grasp every day. All you need do is take them. Look for those natural opportunities and find ways to tie your brand to great things.

Beyonce did. Sitting in the audience, minding her own business, Beyonce was thrown into what would be THE story of the night. And she used it.

When Beyonce won the award for Video of the Year, she called Taylor Swift back up on stage, gave her the spotlight, and let her finish her speech. And do you know what happened the moment she did that? The crowd roared and I STARTED BAWLING. No, I did. Like a moron, right there in my living room. Because that moment wasn’t staged. It was real and it was authentic. There was an opportunity for Beyonce to change the morning’s headlines and she took it. And as a result, she’s now credited with having one of the Best Ever Moments Of The VMAs.

That’s how you become viral. You do it the right away by keeping your eyes open and taking advantage of the very natural opportunities that present themselves. And because she did viral in a real way, today, we adore her. The trust metrics associated with her brand have soared. When we think of Beyonce, we think of greatness, of class, and our own mentors that helped us along the way. She’s a brand we love. In this moment, we would buy whatever Beyonce was selling. Her moment from last night is the best kind of viral because it wasn’t staged. It just happened.

You can only be Kanye so many times before you blow enough holes in your brand to destroy it. Before people stop trusting you, before they lose respect for you, before they simply stop listening and tune you and your bullshit out. As marketers, we need to evolve beyond that.  We need to be honest. We need to stop staging situations and start looking for the  real ones staring us in our face. That’s what our customers want. Those are the moments they’re drawn to and will sit crying in their living room over.

That’s what Kanye and Taylor taught us about viral marketing last night – that we’re done being tricked.

Your Comments

  • Robert Enriquez

    It was a good setup, but you mention that ‘we’ know better.

    We as in internet marketers, but I bet the general public fell for it.

    Not everyone knows it was a fake….especially when they said Taylor was crying backstage

  • Lisa Barone

    Robert: Because we’re starting to see SO MANY of these staged situations, I think even the “normal” person is catching on. I was looking at the Twitter searches for Taylor Swift and Kanye last night….and there were a lot of people calling fake…and they weren’t all Internet marketers. They were real people, who have seen too many “convenient” situations happen live in front of the cameras.

    And for the record, I’m a huge Taylor Swift fan and I don’t think she was in on any part of it. That girl is pure angel. :)

  • JennaGermain

    I think you have a valid point. It’s like when America’s Funniest Videos first started way back. At first there were funny videos of times when crazy stuff had occurred during events that were being filmed, but after a few years, you had so many people trying to stage a “ball hits guy in crotch” or “person is being filmed for no apparent reason and then suddenly something just happens” or whatever. At that point, I don’t even understand why anyone watched that show anymore.

    When people try to fake things, they just piss me off and I lose interest in what they have to say after that.

  • Stuart Foster

    Personally? I liked Soy Bomb far better.

    Less staged…more crazy.

    Crazy and authentic sells. Staged crazy=Lame.

  • Tim Staines

    I think there’s a difference between “staging” a stunt like this while trying to make it seem un-staged and staging something for a reaction. As long as it’s genuine (and I’m not positive about that wedding video), I don’t think staging viral is all that bad. In both cases, there was pre-planning and an unsuspecting audience – one was staged with sincere intentions (I hope), the other was an obvious ploy. I think it’s the genuineness and sincerity that makes the staging good or bad.

  • Patrick Boegel

    I live in a bubble in close proximity to Rae’s, who knew that MTV still had videos, let alone video music awards (daft attempt at overused sarcasm now finished).

    I am not entirely sure what Kanye West stood to gain from his 19th nervous breakdown, but in the end it certainly comes across as fake and contrived at best, utterly stupid at worst. If that is his viral plan he needs new management and some Prozac. Nevertheless, the point is well taken and it is something you often hear from people looking to make a quick cheap splash in marketing. I want something viral! 99% of the time that call for viral has no strategy, reasoning or basic grounding in reality. That lack of reality is definitely truly the problem. “Jill and Kevin’s Wedding Dance” you can’t fake that type of human reaction. You can’t plan for it to get 1MM views, more often life just happens.

  • Janet Masterson

    Why hasn’t anyone questioned Beyonce’s involvement? I mean, if you ask me, she came out as the hero here. How was Taylor so “readily available”, mic in hand, to come out and finally give her well-deserved speech…

    I’m still questioning this..hmmmm

  • Norcross

    Funny enough, I had no idea that the VMAs were even on until I saw tweetdeck flooded with mentions of it. I was doing what every red-blooded American male should have been doing: watching football. (Well, that and working, which is what most folks now have to do).

    What’s sad is that there are enough crazy folks out there that for anything to get traction (and thus press), it has to be WAY over the top. And usually, people crazy enough to do those things don’t become famous enough for MTV.

  • Elizabeth Crouch

    I am not a PR professional, marketer or publicity person. I’m just old enough to be very skeptical about these bizarre actions and most advertising.

    On the surface, Kayne pulled another ill-mannered stunt. If he’d done that to Lady Gaga, she’d have plucked his eyes from his skull and eaten them. What really disturbs me is his bullying behavior toward a kid…

    Taylor Swift is fresh, non-toxic and sweet…she remained composed in the confusion. Beyonce showed the world how an adult quickly and effectively intervenes. She is elegant, gracious and dang smart – a leader and mentor.

  • Lisa Barone

    Jenna: It’s like anything — it’s funny the first time. The millionth time? Not so funny. Look at the staged fights on Jerry Springer. They used to get people excited. Now we’re almost embarrassed *for* them.

    Tim Staines: I’d agree with that, I think intent has a lot to do with it. In the wedding video, it was “staged” in that it was planned. However, the spirit behind it was real. With Kanye and situations like Kanye, it’s not. People are trying to manipulate others to promote themselves. It’s no longer attractive.

    Patrick: Thanks for the comment. Yeah, I’m not sure what Kanye was hoping for. Probably that we’d all be talking about him today. Oh…look at that. ;)

    Norcross: Boo you and your football. Yes…that’s all I have to add. :)

  • Lisa Barone

    Janet: I’ve wondered about the Beyonce thing, myself. Honestly, it was what, three hours between the two incidents? It is possible that Beyonce knew she was going to win and had it so that Taylor wouldn’t be that far when she called out for her. Though, I actually thought it did take a little bit for them to summon her from behind the curtain. I don’t think we question Beyonce because of how stunned she looked the whole time it was happening. And when she finally regained her composure hours later, she handled it how we all wish we would have handled it. She’s our hero.

    Elizabeth: Kanye clearly wasn’t hugged enough as a child. I don’t know what his deal is.

  • Dylan Spencer

    I hesitated reading this post, not wanting to read more about this incident, but nice take. However, don’t take Beyonce’s look of surprise as proof that she wasn’t in on it.

  • Lisa Barone

    Dylan: Thanks for giving in and reading it. :) And really? You think B was in on it? Wow. You’re even more cynical than I am.

  • Patrick Boegel

    I know what he was hoping for in a sense, I just don’t know what he thought he would gain from it. You do things, spontaneous or planned, I would hope the intent would be to gain something of value. To your point it really just comes off as trickery vs authenticity. I could rationalize it to say he gained awareness for his “brand”, but I think we are rapidly passing the point that “any press is good press.”

    Or perhaps Kanye is trying to just poach on Jay-Z. But now we are getting down a path I can’t add anything too.

  • Joe Hall

    I will be honest with you, I don’t think it was staged. I think that maybe Kanye West could have been planning something if Beyonce didn’t win, but i don’t think the network would have known about it. Heres why:

    West has a history of having an agenda, and pushing that agenda in weird awkward ways that run contrary to the networks and companies that support him. Hes not very smart about the way he engages his audiance. His farther was a Black Panther, a group that pretty much wrote the book on how to take the media’s attention in awkward confrontational ways.

    And i am guessing that who ever directed the show last night was sitting in their control room watch it unfold, and though, “how can we spin this?” and at that point put the gears in motion fast to get it on the web and else where, where it might be viral.

  • iGoMogul

    I’m not so sure that Kanye didn’t benefit from this fiasco. While it was certainly in poor taste and generally just a lame product of his over-inflated ego, between this event and the South Park Fishsticks episode he has most likely generated quite a bit of publicity and notoriety. Has his brand or image been hurt considerably? I doubt it. Rappers, like Eminem for instance, seem to thrive on controversy.


  • Rebecca Kelley

    Man, the Internet has turned everyone into aggro conspiracy theorists. “FAKE! They were all acting!” Either way, Kanye West is still a d-bag.

  • Todd

    The most surprising part of this “fake-iasko” is that it’s still being talked about… Sadly, whether you like it or not, that means it worked. How ’bout them Giants?

  • rhbjorn

    Come on guys. It was staged but, neither B or Taylor was in on it. Not buying it.

    1 It created drama, by putting the incident first, and the happy ending last.
    2 Taylor conveniently performed outside
    3 The mike was not cut, but MTV cut away when Taylor got the mike back.
    4 The dresses looked coordinated.
    5 Nobody tried to stop Kanye or went over to Taylor. Not even Taylor Lautner who was on stage.
    6 MTV does this all the time most of their show are scripted reality
    My only conclusion is that this was fully scripted and rehearsed, and everyone involved was in on it .

  • Allateef

    I'm not so sure that Kanye didn't benefit from this fiasco. While it was certainly in poor taste and generally just a lame product of his over-inflated ego, between this event and the South Park Fishsticks episode he has most likely generated quite a bit of publicity and notoriety. Has his brand or image been hurt considerably? I doubt it. Rappers, like Eminem for instance, seem to thrive on controversy.


  • supaswag

    Who are these people??

  • Yawn Webmaster!

    “That’s what Kanye and Taylor taught us about viral marketing last night – that we’re done being tricked.”

    Doubt it, wait for next year. And look for all the headlines with “Unprecedented” in the title – proofs in you brief chronology.

    “Those are the moments they’re drawn to and will sit crying in their living room over.” – but just HOW GOOD is marketing? Was your crying planned for? How do you know that you weren’t suckered with some superb double marketing? The comments here show quite a difference of opinions. But at the end of the day, does it matter whether you were suckered or not? Perhaps your crying related to something way down in your subconscious.

    Personally these award ceremonies are as much about setting up next years talent and bashing out the last ounces of brand commerciability from the usual suspects before they, either launch a career/or get consigned to the trash bin.

    At the end of the day though isn’t the music awards about providing kids with caricatures through which they can rebel against their families, which translates as double platignum albums?

  • Shashi Kapoor

    Hmm, just to throw my 2 cents in.
    “Even if Taylor didn’t know about it (did you see that poor child’s face?)”
    Based on what? Drawing a comparison to Jerry Springer staged fights seems like an apples and oranges comparison at best. Think about who would have a better media face… some deranged members of the public looking for 5 seconds of (humiliating) fame or A list celebrities who sit in the spotlight all day long?
    “I’m a huge Taylor Swift fan and I don’t think she was in on any part of it. That girl is pure angel.”
    Again, based on what? This only proves that perhaps she has better PR consultants and reputation managers.
    “Her moment from last night is the best kind of viral because it wasn’t staged.”
    Proof that fake viral marketing still has it’s place. I think this kind of assumption is naive because everyone involved profited. MTV, Kanye, Beyonce and Taylor.

    MTV become the centre of a media frenzy both online and offline. With Kanye, the ole any publicity is good publicity kind of applies, becoming a meme is a good way to get attention. Plus he gets points for the apologies he will no doubt continue to issue to the media desperate for his attention.

    Beyonce gets hailed a hero, though the way it all went so smoothly would suggest she knew what was coming. Taylor gets a load of sympathy cards handed to her.

    Call it a double bluff, but have you considered the idea that perhaps the Kanye part of the ‘fakeiasco’ (I hate that word) was made somewhat more blatant to make Beyonce’s followup somewhat more convincing?

    Ultimately, the conspiracy theories don’t matter. If tricking us is the point, they have succeeded, because we’re still wasting precious seconds of our lives discussing it (I think that’s a good place to stop typing.)

  • Rob J

    Great post! I agree.

    Gimmicky stunts can win attention, if they truly strike a chord on some deeper level. But, it can also turn you into that guy with the lampshade on his head at the party, if you’re just doing it just to get attention. And it tends to amplify your hidden motives, and insult the intelligence of everyone you’re trying to communicate with.

    I think the ‘social’ in social media implies that you’re going to be as honest as you would be in any relationship, business or not. It’s important to check that motives are pure, that with anything you’re putting out there is done to educate or otherwise engage an audience to their benefit. If that’s not the motive, it should be cut loose.