At the top of the list, of course, is GM's now-infamous attempt to involve the world in marketing its Chevy Tahoe sports utility vehicle, which resulted in a global orgy of SUV bashing. Here's one of the most popular ones on YouTube, which currently has more than 50 such parodies posted.
Then there's the marketing campaign Ogilvy & Mather's UK office created for Ford's SportKa that involved the car, a closing sunroof, and a soon-to-be headless cat. Although Ford pulled the plug on this tasteless advertisement before it was released, the video somehow made it out onto the Web, and the rest of it is viral history.
At least those two involved real advertising concepts proposed and/or implemented by real automotive executives. Volkswagen was unlucky enough to be the subject of a spoof commercial that depicted a man in fatigues getting into a Polo, parking outside a restaurant, and blowing himself up (the Polo escapes from the blast unscathed). The creators of the ad, a U.K.-based marketing team known as Lee and Dan, claim that the ad was not intended to be for general distribution, but the damage was done.
"Cars are in a very high involvement product category, and represent a major and emotional purchase. As a result, people do an enormous amount of due diligence before they buy, and are heavily invested in the outcome," says Pete Blackshaw, chief marketing officer for Nielsen Buzzmetrics, which tracks online "chatter" about brands and claims as clients all the major automotive manufacturers.
"Car makers need to find a way to reach and influence consumers in new ways," Blackshaw says, and most of these are online.
Still, "if you've got even a slightly controversial product, and you know there are people out there with strong negative opinions about it, you probably shouldn't give them a platform," says Emily Riley, an advertising analyst with JupiterMedia. The Chevy Tahoe campaign was a bad idea from the get-go. "I doubt that a Tide viral campaign would result in any negative backlash," she says of the laundry detergent.