Media, Sci-Tech

Amy Allais on the illusive viral effect

By Mandy De Waal 22 August 2011

How do you make ads which become a viral sensation, like Vodacom’s “Single Lady”?  Ola Films director Amy Allais has had more than a couple of hits, and says it’s all about respecting that people need to be entertained, not bored to death with mindless branded pack shots. By MANDY DE WAAL.

The problem with television commercials is they are adverts. But every now and again, there’s a gem that remembers that advertising should be about entertainment. Adverts like these which also capture the South African Zeitgeist can go viral, which is a brand owner’s dream.

How often do advertising agencies hear clients walk in, throw a lean budget down on the table and say: “Here’s a meagre budget. Now go out and shoot something that’s inexpensive so we can download it onto YouTube and make it go viral”?

That’s when creative agency folk feel nauseous to the point of expelling body fluids over their clients. The dumb agencies take the money and create something which is a cock-up, and despite their desperate efforts, doesn’t become any more viral than a file that’s emailed around the client service crew. Or which the creative director pays his kids and their mates to click on YouTube.

The smarter agencies explain to their clients that, no, the viral effect is not something that is easily replicated. And that, yes, to create something in the hope of it being viral in an age when people are saturated to the eyeballs with content, agencies need to do the impossible: create a commercial which is culturally cool or genius, relevant, hilarious, or which smartly communicates what it means to live in this crazy country called South Africa. The best viral adverts have a lot of those elements in one.

What viral ads do have in common is that they’re entertaining. They shock you, make you gasp, delight you or make you laugh out loud. The one thing viral ads never do is bore you with obvious branding, unless it’s a mocking homage commercial stupidity.

“Huge corporates have so many rules and check lists when it comes to making a commercial, particularly when it is for multinational brands,” says Amy Allais, a film director at Ola Films. “You have to include a product demo, an ‘appreciation’ moment. This logic is the exact opposite of what people who love to create commercials enjoy making. Those other ads may work on some level but film directors despise making these kinds of ads.”

Allais says research based on focus groups do show that those template-style brand commercials work but says she’s incredibly sceptical of the surveys that prove this. “The whole process of researching how advertising is affective is extremely dubious, and often film directors get scuppered in this process which is all about a group of people who feel they need to express an opinion.

“People can watch so much and have so much choice. They often feel very resentful about the onslaught and pervasiveness of ads. I don’t have a TV and hardly listen to radio because I listen to podcasts and rent DVDs, watch videos online or look at what my friends bring me,” Allais says.

In a world where virtual networks present massive entertainment opportunities, Allais is all about creating TV ads that are a lot more than just palatable. They’re the kind of commercials that people love sending to one another, which invade our national consciousness and subsequently garner massive word of mouth.

These are ads like Vodacom’s “Daddy Cool” in which a Boney M gyrating hipster kicks the ass out of über boring social events; and Marcus the cool, rapping kid who’s YouTube includes the likes of HHP, Tumi, Freshly Ground, Gang of Instrumentals, Corné & Twakkie and many more. Then there’s the ad with the guy in the cut off denim jean pants who dances with a whack of everyday South Africans to Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies” (Put A Ring On It).

“I had no idea that the ‘Single Ladies’ ad would be such a viral hit, but once we were going it was clear that it was a great idea. The ad tapped into the Beyoncé song which was already a viral phenomenon because people everywhere were making their YouTube dance videos for that song. Vodacom bought the rights for the actual song which is pretty rare. So often you don’t get the rights for the original song and have to do with some lame, watered-down version,” says Allais.

“The idea was that this guy goes around doing this dance with everyone. My treatment of the idea was to shoot everything on one lens from a locked-off angle, which was terrifying. This means there was no cutaways or other techniques to cover you.” Allais’ approach was risky because she was on location, had only one camera angle to use, and had to work with everyday people, as opposed to actors. She only had five days to deliver a compelling commercial that worked.

During the shoot, Allais and her crew shot farmers dancing in fields, soccer supporters dancing next to trains, yuppies dancing outside of high rises, mimes moving in the inner city, and big mamas shaking their booty on the beachfront.  “It was hectic because when you shoot on location, you can adjust camera angles to make the environment look good, but with this ad we couldn’t do that.”

The result was an ad that everyone talked about, that people mailed to each other, that many South Africans could related to and which is a sheer joy to watch. “If you are thinking about your brand, you want people to connect to a fabulous experience, whether it is visually astonishing, emotional or connecting. It’s about creating a piece of entertainment.”

Thank goodness for advertising people like Allais who don’t fill our screens with crud and who respect that TV viewers have the choice of switching off or watching something else. DM



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