For the third year, TED and YouTube will be looking for the top 10 global ad campaigns in the Ads Worth Spreading Initiative.  And while TED does a good job of finding and showing ads that truly hit the mark, they didn’t stop there.  They published a report on what makes an ad worth spreading, which has been a big theme this year: no longer is “virality” being considered a magical, mystical happy accident.  It’s coming down to a science, to the point that the word “viral” is becoming more and more of a “bad word” among those who turn videos into mega-hits.  Let’s take a look at what TED has to say on the subject.

TED’s Ads Worth Spreading Report

The report’s introduction tells us about how difficult it is for brands to actually reach consumers despite the fact that they consume media at a crazy rate on a lot of different kinds of screens.  So what is a brand to do?

1. They have to make good content: content that people actually try to find and share.  As the report says, “What the audience demands is content driven by ideas.”

2. Brands have to create “wonder,” and they have to stop thinking that they can only grab audiences with a 15 or 30 second ad.  While many in their study would make a point to say whether an ad was too long, I’m guessing that those ads weren’t compelling enough to last their full length.

3. Brands have to use all the social media available.  And when brands use social media and enter into a conversation with the consumer, they need to be sure they have something to say.

The report is divided into chapters.  We’ll take them on one-by-one.


Chapter 1 of the TED Ads Worth Spreading Report focuses on what is the very heart of great content: storytelling.  TED also sites what has been, and will be even more, an important shift in the future of YouTube videos: the decision to rank videos by engagement and not views, which we’ve talked about a lot this year.  Just recently, we talked about how the search algorithm has been changed to favor a video’s time-watched.  Merely clicking isn’t a huge factor in ranking anymore.

So how do you keep a viewer interested?  Tell them a compelling story.  That means, eschewing the 15-30 second ad and making something that can last 2-4 minutes, with interesting characters and situations.  You pretty much aren’t selling anymore, you are providing content to your audience and building a brand image that becomes noteworthy, trustworthy, and recognized, creating an esteem for the name beyond just the products you sell.

As examples for this emerging outlook, these ads were singled out for having a single character telling a simple story, starting with Prudential’s “Day One: Linda – Droga5:”

Mazda’s “Defy Convention:”

Sharpie’s “Start with Sharpie:”

For the Prudential ad, Prudential started a social campaign to find people who were retiring and tell the story of their first day off the job.

As the creators of the ad say:

We could provide concrete data around why everyone needs to save for retirement, but watching stories of real people on their first day of retirement is much more powerful.

Usually, when coming up with an ad campaign, you try to come up with an idea touching on concepts and talking points, then create a story around it.  This time, the story was already there.

Raghava KK, one of the individuals on one of the TED nomination teams, says:

I chose ads that consciously did not manipulate me, allowed me to feel the way I wanted to feel instead of telling me how to feel.  That was really critical for me.

Here are some questions TED says brands should ask themselves when creating content:

  • How does the story convey the brand’s value?
  • What is the most simple and direct way of telling a story?
  • Is the voice authentic?
  • How do I captivate human attention without reference to a standard length?

There are some remarkable findings with the Sharpie ad, stuff that we preach all the time but it’s good to actually have some data behind us.  Let’s take a look at what one of the individuals said about the ad:

The fact that the ad had a human interest plot and didn’t constantly mention the product, made it special.  I only heard “Sharpie” twice in the ad, but because I was paying attention, I will remember the name far longer than if it had been mentioned twenty times.

Even though the product name wasn’t front and center, 16% of the viewers strongly associated the ad with Sharpie, which is a number that a brand can definitely live with.  How many times do we see Super Bowl ads where we have no idea what the product is, even though we see it a couple of times and it’s memorable for its content?


Ads have to create the quality of compelling viewers to share with their friends and family.  And we’re in the age of a tremendous social media presence with the likes of Facebook and Twitter.  Using Nielsen’s Global Trust in Advertising Survey which shows that 92% of people trust their friends and family when it comes to product recommendations and 70% trust consumer reviews, they found ads that scored high with those metrics in mind.

But there is a caveat:

The social element of a campaign is not always successful.  If it feels tacked on or doesn’t appeal to consumers, it can fall flat.  Some people feel certain brands can never become their “friends,” even in the figurative sense used by Facebook.  Likewise, an overreliance on technology can make a campaign unnecessarily complicated and detract from the ideas behind an ad.

TED focuses on L’Oreal Paris, which updates the old “Because You’re Worth It” campaign to feature Aimee Mullins, an athlete/model/actress and double-amputee:

At the end of the video, there is a simple, “To be continued at…” and an invitation to L’Oreal’s Facebook page.  The response was great from those who wanted to learn more.

TED reminds that not every campaign can be organized around social media, but it will be essential part of the creative process.

Questions brands should ask themselves about social media:

  • Will the message be resonant enough to encourage consumers to engage?
  • What responses do they hope to elicit from contributors?
  • How can they adjust and adapt to consumer feedback?
  • What are the best channels for engagement?

A simple way to look at this is can you engage beyond the video?  Can you make compelling content and create a stirring conversation on Facebook or Twitter, using the video as a starting point?  Remember what the report says about social media in the introduction: when you use social media and you get consumers on your Facebook page, you better have something to say.

Cultural Compass

In this chapter, TED focused on brands that were able to harness the “way things are” when it comes to cultural trends, and how the brand has decided to embrace, or take on the challenges of, a trend that might affect the business.

TED’s questions brands should ask themselves:

  • What is the brand’s position in the cultural discussion and can an online video ad reflect that?
  • What “hacks” and other innovative uses are your consumers finding for your products?
  • Is the cultural moment worth reflecting or is it a transient fad?

Where does your product fit in the world, and what are people doing with your product that is amazing and worth talking about?

Brand Bravery

One ad that scored well across all the different categories is the Chipotle: “Back to the Start” ad, which takes the Coldplay song, “The Scientist,” and lets Willie Nelson run with it, creating a compelling animated ad about sustainable farming:

Here’s an important quote from one of the viewers, Jesse Coulter, from Creative Arts Agency:

I think a brand can be a force for good as long as the company is a force for good, meaning what they’re saying is what they’re actually doing.

It kind of goes back to a great quote from KBS+P’s Jonah Bloom (whom we interviewed in this post and this post), who said to Marketeer:

If Exxon starts pumping out a climate science blog or white paper, to decide if they find them credible,” says Bloom. (Unfortunately, he adds, some people would.)

So Chipotle came out with a stunning ad about sustainable farming, sticking to their guns about raising animals naturally and getting meat from them.  What’s more, the National Advertising Division of the Advertising Self-Regulating Council found that their claims were true.  If anyone finds a lapse in the truth, that will tear down your ad’s effectiveness overnight.

TED’s questions:

  • Can the brand’s point-of-view be communicated through the ad?
  • Does the brand risk alienating the audience through its conventional stance on issues?  Is it worth it to highlight these issues?
  • Can the brand back up its claims that its making the world a better place?

Basically, are you a brand that can credibly speak to your methods, and is it something people will find significant or worthwhile?

Another great example is the humorous “Rethink Breast Cancer: Your Man Reminder,” which gets ladies to think about breast exams with shirtless hot guys:

There’s this ridiculous notion that every sensitive subject has to be talked about in hushed tones or reverence, and when an ad about breast cancer can be entertaining and informative, then I believe you’ve knocked it out of the park.

Social Good

In these ads, the creators are bringing attention to subjects that they may not be thinking about too deeply or are thinking of them passively.  TED brings up this year’s “KONY 2012” video as an example.  But for this study, viewers saw “The Return of Dictator Ben Ali:”

This uses the “social experiment” type of technique we’ve seen a lot in the past couple of years with “Improv Everywhere,” and ads for TNT and others.  Put something that stirs emotion in the middle of a public place and see what happens.  In this case, it’s the horrible idea that a dictator has returned and has taken power.  It’s a reminder to vote so that this doesn’t happen again.


  • Is there enough of a connection between your brand, or NGO (non-governmental organization), and a given issue for it to be resonant with an audience?
  • Is there a clear call to action that the audience can readily engage?
  • Will the audience view the call to action as an authentic action by the brand?

Creative Wonder

This is where the content is just simply amazing, or tremendously creative.  Something that makes people go, “Wow!  Is this real?” or has surprises that you don’t see in traditional ads.  One of these ads was for NTT Docomo’s “Touch Wood” mobile phone, it which they built a 144-foot xylophone made of wood in the middle of a forest and let a wooden ball descend it, creating a song as it dropped:

That’s one of those ads that make you say, “I can’t believe this is real.”  They took three months to make the xylophone and 49 takes before the ball rested next to the cell phone.  It’s all made of sustainably harvested wood.

Another one is this very funny, but twisted, ad for Canal+ known as “The Bear:”

Love that ad.  Especially the outburst in the conference room.


  • How can brands present the unconventional?
  • How will a message be amplified by a well-chosen piece of music or high-impact design?
  • What inspires an emotional connection with the audience and how will the ad achieve this?

Again, read the full report here.  They have some nice, big graphs that show what how people responded to the ads, and a lot of quotes I did not reprint here.  These are all great examples to follow, all with different approaches.