Viral marketing

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This article is part of the Tobacco portal on Sourcewatch funded from 2006 - 2009 by the American Legacy Foundation.

Viral marketing is a technique that uses word of mouth or email to reach and affect an audience. Some forms of viral marketing have existed for centuries. They are mentioned in annals of Greek Athenian histories and are a common strategy in marketing and media relations techniques.

The goal of a viral marketer is to create "buzz" about a product or idea, so that the idea spreads widely. If effective, viral marketing may require very little effort on the part of the propagandist, as the recipients of the message become the primary agents who spread it to other people. On the other hand, the weakest thing about this form of marketing is that it is hard to control. Like the "telephone game" that children play, the message may change as it passes from ear to ear.


  • Rumours
  • Chain letters with warnings
  • "Leaked" information
  • Gossip
  • Urban myths
  • Secondhand versions of official reports

Case study #1:

Mobility and urbanization of American society at the beginning of 20th century unwittingly helped spread the syphilis, which was a major public health disaster by the twenties. Penicillin was still two decades away. Having the disease almost certain meant a painful death. It was feared and was not tolerated. After the World War I the tobacco companies expanded business into advertising to women, with R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company being at the forefront with its Camel brand. Very fierce competition ensued. Competitors apparently used the following technique of word of mouth and fear to counter advertise:

Two "strangers" would enter an establishment such as pharmacy through separate entrances, and independently from each other. A discussion will "incidentally" commence about Reynolds' cigarettes, and one person would express fear that there is a danger of catching syphilis from smoking Camels, because there is a confirmed epidemic among the factory employees. Discussion would be picked up by bystanders, and fear relayed to others. Radio was in its infancy at the time, and many people were illiterate, with no access to newspapers. Such technique must have been actually used, since at one point Reynolds advertized a $10,000 prize for exposing the perpetrators.

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A more sinister alternate meaning for the term viral marketing arose when it was revealed that various drugco vending antiviral therapies for HIV had worked to suppress research into the malaria therapy for AIDS. By doing so, some argue, they permitted the spread of the HIV virus to do the marketing of their drugs for them, as there was no effective or cheap alternative therapy.