The recent global controversy surrounding a misfired viral advert has clearly illustrated the current power of the medium, but for how long can its popularity last?
Chances are that by now the notorious VW Polo suicide bomber viral ad that attracted global media coverage and kept a number of highly-paid solicitors busy for a couple of weeks has at some point passed through your inbox. But in case you missed it, the film shows a driver pulling up outside a busy family-friendly café, exposing some explosives strapped to his chest, and pushing a detonator. His car, however, contains the explosion, foiling his plan. The ad then fades to the strap: Polo: small but tough.
The 30-second spot, produced by London-based advertising creatives Lee Ford and Dan Brooks - operating simply as Lee and Dan - is likely to pass into history as the one example of viral advertising that bought the genre onto centre stage. But has it also marked a last burst of creative freedom?
Aside from its morally dubious content, the Polo viral is also notable for the legal problems that arose from its creation. Lee and Dan claim they were making a "spec ad" to add to their show reel and had no plans for its wider circulation. They also say that they created the whole thing without any input, financial support or consent from Volkswagen. Once the piece leaked out onto the net, however, the pair ended up at the wrong end of a libel and cease and desist lawsuit from VW and, eventually, were forced to hand over their source material and make a high-profile apology.
This incident marks a watershed for viral marketing, illustrating how quickly things can get out of hand and how the edgy content that often gives viral ads their unique feel - officially sanctioned or not - can seriously backfire on the brand owner. So where is viral advertising heading next?
Keen to put the incident behind them, but fully acknowledging the doors the incident may have opened, Lee and Dan believe viral advertising may have finally emerged as the most effective new medium available to advertisers.
"People are just waking up to how powerful this is," says Lee Ford. "Virals have loads of advantages over standard advertising - you don't have to buy media space, so you save millions of pounds straight away. You're also hitting a captive audience. People watching virals have hit a button to do so - they've made a choice."
The extent of viral advertising growth over the past few years has created noticeable ripples across all areas of the industry. Gary Szabo, creative director at post-production company Red, says that budgets for viral campaigns have climbed almost as fast as the number of commissions from major agencies.
"It's becoming a much more recognised form of advertising and the budgets for viral spots have been going up - as high as £10,000 for brands such as Nike and XBox," he says. "In terms of our involvement, we add special effects to virals and we've currently got five in the pipeline - a year ago we wouldn't have done any."
But while advertisers are willing to spend more money on viral advertising, it is also true that a major part of its attraction lies in the fact that the internet, a largely unregulated medium, allows for creative work with far more bite than broadcasting and advertising standards would ever allow.
Having just produced an example of viral advertising that no broadcasting outlet in the world would have touched, Ford says the edgy, underground feel central to the most successful viral campaigns is really important to the creative teams behind them.
"There are a lot of frustrated creatives out there because there are so many regulations that mean you can't do anything that seems even slightly risky. Viral campaigns are a good opportunity for creatives to do something without any regulation," he says.
A new threat
At digital design agency DS.Emotion, which has produced viral advertising for the likes of online gambling group Skybet, director Chris Hassell says this lack of regulation makes virals popular with their target demographic.
"[Viral advertising] is popular at the moment because there's no-one to say what can and can't be done. Things can get a bit close to the bone, or pornographic - basically the sort of stuff that is post watershed, or even something that wouldn't be allowed on television at all," he says. "I can't see it ever being regulated - how can you regulate something that is global and based on free speech?"
While this may be true at present, the UK's main advertising content watchdog the Advertising Standards Authority and its sister organisation the Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP) say they will soon make an announcement that will make advertisers more responsible than ever for the content of the ads they produce.
"The CAP is currently looking at ways to ensure that virals are covered by non-broadcast advertising rules. This would mean if someone complains, it's clear that an advert came from a certain company and the complaint is upheld, we will be able to do something about it," a Committee of Advertising Practice spokeswoman says.
Aside from the taste and decency watchdogs, the other main threat to viral advertising lies in its massive popularity. Will the currently innovative medium eventually lose its cutting-edge appeal?
"There is a danger that people will be bombarded with crappy virals that aren't as good as they could be because the client doesn't have the balls to go with something edgy. Spammers are also likely to get involved and everyone will be doing it. As a result, the work will no longer be very risky," says Hassell.
Whatever happens - and you can bet the advertising industry will have its eyes on the Committee of Advertising Practice over the next couple of months - the current vogue for viral advertising doesn't look like running out of steam any time soon.