Who can forget Chocolate Rain, the insanely weird, catchy song by Tay Zonday, that made him a web sensation? Even pop star Lily Allen was a fan and had him on her show, Lily Allen and Friends, in London. But when Zonday scored a deal with Dr. Pepper, starring in an overly-produced online commercial, mocking his success, complete with scantily clad dancers, people thought the scrawny-necked kid with the deep voice sold out. "This internet thing is wild," Zonday says at the end of the video. Big advertisers would agree, because they're frustrated by it.
One team is helping them out while maintaining their college humour cred. "It's very hard to train someone to make viral videos. We're still learning," says Rhett McLaughlin of Rhett & Link, the viral video-making team of such hits as the Facebook Song, Fast Food Folk Song, and this week's big sensation, thanks to an AP story, Red House: Furniture for Black People and White People. (They even have a viral seven-minute video, showing how they crashed the Grammy's and got artists on the red carpet to strike a pose from a Lionel Richie album cover.)
People couldn't tell if the Red House furniture video, with all its local commercial cheesiness and racial references, was a joke, racist, not at all racist, or just a brilliant online ad. "It's the riskiest thing we've done," says Rhett. "There was a lot of trust involved. A larger company isn't going to take this risk."
The complimentary commercial for Red House was a customer-appreciation gift from MicroBilt.com, a credit protection company. It was also the first video, in a recent series of three videos, to go viral, getting Rhett & Link on CNN and its counterpart, Ashton Kutcher's Twitter. They admit big hits are few and far between. The internet is a fickle animal, even for these beloved Internetainers.
Though anyone can be a filmmaker and upload videos onto YouTube, there's that x-factor that determines whether something will take off. Rhett & Link have posted over 200 videos and worked for big clients like General Motors, Starburst, and Alka-Seltzer, and marketers big and small call every day trying to tap into their magic. (Although they look like they could be in their seventh year of college, they're both married with children and are finally making a comfortable living.)
Online commercials cannot be like the ones on TV, and some marketers don't get that. "In general, as policy, we have repeatedly explained, the internet is a different animal. People are always given a reason to click away," says Rhett. "You got to do something to set yourself apart. There's got to be an edge, that originality."
If you're looking for a couple extra thousand dollars, have a camera and editing software and an uncle with a used car business who could use an online video that appeals to cash-strapped college kids, there's a chance that you too can join the budding business of micro-commercials. "Entertain first, advertise second. If we can't entertain first with somebody's brand, we don't work with that particular client," says Rhett. "That's the key to the web video. If people don't have a reason to talk to their friends about it, you're not going to get a lot of views."
The Red House video may have weirded some people out with its sincere treatment of race relations in the south, but, from the jingle to the big smiles, there's also something sweet about it. "You don't get a Red House every day," says Rhett. "The controversy is going to get people talking. People are so afraid to talk about race, and, I think, especially white people are afraid to talk about race, because they're afraid of coming off as racist. People need to lighten up a little bit."
Another trick to making beloved online videos lies in collaboration, working with someone you respect and trust. Rhett and Link Neal, his best friend since first grade, work together like brothers, complete with giving each other blunt feedback. And they, of course, sometimes work on the same project independently. While Rhett is talking to Walletpop, Link is in the other room working on their music, in an undisclosed location in North Carolina, where they're based.
With their love of Merle Haggard, whose influence comes through in their songs, it's only a matter of time before some television network, capitalizing on HBO's success with Flight of the Conchords, gives them a show. They used to host a viral video countdown show for The CW that lasted only a few episodes. Maybe if marketers just let them continue to be themselves, the hits will keep coming.
"We have ongoing conversations about TV ideas. There's something attractive about the internet and being your own producer and having your freedom," says Rhett. "We don't have to have network approval for anything. We do have a desire to be involved and work on things that are bigger than ourselves."
How to make a viral online video for money, the Rhett & Link way