Why did ‘Kolaveri’ go viral?

In a few days, the laid back rendition of nonsensical lyrics set to an easy to remember tune has grabbed eyeballs, been parodiedmashed and stormed the entire country. A lot of people are singing it without knowing why it stays in the mind. One of the most perceptive things the producers did before the release was to put in the lyrics as sub-titles making it an easy sing along to follow. That meant that the song gained familiarity even if the accent was unfamiliar – in fact , lyrical flourishes like ‘moon-u’ and ‘distance- la’ added crucial bits of novelty and allowed comprehension. The way these words are pronounced is very Tamilian – and it gives the song a unique identity.

The singer – actor Dhanush has just scored the biggest hit of his life and he made it on his terms, singing a ‘Tanglish’ (mixture of Tamil and English) song that resonated far beyond the local market. It just reinforces something that I have always believed in – that the more local a song, a flavour, an attitude is, the more global it becomes when the other factors are right.

The problem arises when clients want virals like this one. Here, there was an agenda – the promotion of the film. But when a product plug has to be put in, people catch on in a flash. We’ve become extremely good at separating honest content from advertising gloss. There’s a very thin line that divides the two. No one wants to send an obvious product promotion – no matter how good the production values are to friends. People share what they genuinely believe their friends will like and enjoy. In a sense, they are putting their taste in music, emotions or drama on the line and they expect to get favourable reactions and comments.

The companies promoting virals will tell you that certain attributes are given.

  • It has to be a light-hearted approach. Nothing that looks like a college lecture has ever gone viral
  • Kids are a big draw
  • Death defying stunts and magic tricks work
  • Embarrassment,. especially people looking stupid or dorky or both works as well
  • Animals, especially cats and dogs doing repetitive stuff gets attention.
  • Rebellious behaviour, especially against big authoritarian figures gets applause in terms of eyeballs
  • Irreverence and self-deprecation are other triggers that get passed around
  • Celebs doing mundane things gets attention – but then its not the endorsement ads that get shared

Now try putting in a product proposition and matching a client brief into creating a viral and we see the problem. Unless a product benefit is part of the viral, why should the client spend money? The only ones that have managed this well enough are Samsung or Evian. Just take a look at the so-called virals on You Tube and the number of views. Pepsi’s ‘Refresh‘ campaign apparently did very little for the sales of the product – but Coke’s Open Happiness did better, probably bacause there was no camouflage. Pepsi tried to be associated with a social cause. Coke made no effort of hide the fact that this was simply a sales promotion activity.

If there’s a lesson, it’s this. Pretense does not get shared, reality does. People don’t like sales messages masquerading as honest fun.