David Bowie: Viral re-invention

To many sixty-six year olds the word ‘viral’ might conjure up images of a nasty winter flu bug. Not so David Bowie. Over a career spanning nearly fifty years he has sold 140 million albums and sustained numerous image and musical reinventions since Space Oddity (1969) and Ziggy Stardust (1972). This morning Bowie launched his first new single since 2003, “Where Are We Now?” and, true to form, he has caused a sensation. This time, however, it is not face paint, skin tight body suits or cross-gender dressing that has got people talking: it is the use of social media to break his ten year silence. David Bowie has gone viral.

The DavidBowie hashtag is trending on Twitter and is a good example of what makes a viral campaign work. According to Alexis Petridis of The Guardian, ‘the main reason it’s created such a fuss is simply because no one knew.’ By producing his first single in a decade without pre-publicity or fanfare, Bowie took the world by surprise. Marketers know that for a viral campaign to succeed it has to stimulate curiosity which in turn provides a motivation to view and to disseminate.

Now sometimes a campaign is designed to go viral. Warner Brothers promoted the 2012 third Batman film ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ by inviting fans to track down graffiti clues from around the world and tag them on social media sites. For each tag Warner promised to unlock another frame of the promotional trailer on its website and it took only a few hours for fans to complete the task. The Blair Witch film marketing team used the release of supposedly ‘recovered’ footage of supernatural events to engender online interest while Virgin Blue encouraged people to tell their friends that they were giving away nine dollar plane tickets.

But when a pitch is cool and interesting enough, it can sometimes go viral all by itself. On 21st December 2012 the Gangnam Style video made YouTube history by hitting a billion views and that figure continues to climb. The previously little-known South Korean pop sensation combined bizarre dance moves, choppy scene changes and a catchy tune in a way that combined both humour and surprise. Something about it made people want to share it with friends and it has since spawned numerous take-offs by such diverse groups as Etonians, American farmers and British soldiers serving in Afghanistan.

As for David Bowie venturing into viral marketing, it really should not come as a surprise. A man whose musical styles have been described as ‘blue-eyed soul, industrial, adult contemporary and jungle’ is clearly capable of tackling new things.