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As loathe as I am to admit it, I do not subsist solely on a diet of high-brow media content.  Hopefully this is the dirty little secret many of us share, or this post will be exponentially more embarrassing to publish. Via a poll of my family, friends and a look at the latest Neilsen ratings, I’ve noticed that many of us are drawn to shows like Bravo’s “Mean and Annoying Housewives of XX County, City, Etc.”. These shows may initially hook us through our natural voyeuristic urges, but the big appeal lies in the satisfaction that comes from relating to certain “characters”, while simultaneously telling ourselves that we would NEVER behave as they do. The major networks have created programming that is more, last-(wo)man-standing and adventure driven: “The Amazing Race”, the indomitable “Survivor” franchise, and the show that begat all of those shows, “Big Brother”. Each has a Darwinian premise at its core.

One of the most successful network reality show franchises is Mark Burnett’s “Apprentice” series, featuring the follicly-challenged real estate mogul Donald Trump (“The Donald”). This season, the show features low C-list, D-list and/or formerly A-list celebrities, each of whom is competing to win money for his/her designated charities. I won’t go into the horror that has been Miss Dionne Warwick, or the freak-show that is and will continue to be the interaction between Meatloaf and Gary Busey, because what I really want to talk to you about it last week’s challenge and how it relates to branding and inspiring your sales force through viral video.

This season on Celebrity Apprentice, The Donald divided the contestants up into teams based on gender. The last challenge tasked each team with developing a commercial for ACN’s new Video Phone, with the caveat that the commercial had to have content that demonstrated an overseas call using the video phone. The winner of the challenge would be determined by ACN’s 2 top executives and by a vote of 450 account executives, who would watch the video en masse at their annual conference and vote right then and there on their favorite.

The women’s team took the traditional route and created a commercial that involved a daughter on her year abroad speaking to her parents, one of whom was played by Celebrity Apprentice Marlee Matlin, a deaf actress who used sign language to communicate with her daughter via the video phone, It pulled at the heartstrings and was well executed. The men’s team aimed at getting the commercial to “go viral” and created a piece that involved a wacky grandfather communicating with his grandson in South America. The grandson introduces his grandparents to his fiancee via videophone. The catch is that the fiancee is a character played by disgraced baseball pro Jose Canseco, another Celebrity Apprentice contestant.

When each commercial was presented to the crowd of mostly young account execs, the reaction was palpable. The traditional commercial that the women produced received a strong and emotional reaction. But the commercial that was made with the intent to “go viral” received a rousing set of cheers and applause, and eventually won the votes of a (slim) majority of the audience.

The point that the contest made, and that most of us in the 21st century pr and marketing business have come to terms with is that viral video is a viable tool to sell almost anything, and not only because of its comic or outrageous appeal. Watching those account executives react to the humorous, tongue-in-cheek approach to selling their product was a revelation. You could see that this ACN sales force will be so excited to start using this tool to sell the hell out of this phone. This is a commercial that they are not only are proud to be a part of, but in our culture, it is a signifier of brand authority and “coolness” to be an Internet sensation, if only for a few days. Anyone who looks at the Evian babies viral campaign knows that this type of marketing can brand you in a whole new way.

A video phone is not a new technology, and it is up against stiff competition from Skype and G-chatting, etc. So one of the factors in selling this product is to appeal to a younger demographic, while still enabling its traditional consumer base (the grandparents and parents in the commercial) to see that it is a telecommunications technology with which they can still relate. But to get ACN’s sales force focused and excited about battling giants like Skype and Google, the commercial-turned-viral video had the unintended benefit of motivating their sales force to be creative with their pitching. It empowered them to feel like the product they are selling is of-the-moment, in the zeitgeist, and a hip, new way to network with colleagues, potential clients, and a younger demographic.

Wow. I learned all of this from watching reality TV, and reality TV featuring Donald Trump, no less. Maybe in my next post I should come out of the closet with my predilection for horrifying celebrity gossip blogs, if only to see what revelations might come to light!

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