The world's inboxes are crammed with e-mails containing jokes, pictures, movies, tests or games and which are sent to millions of people within a few hours. They're not just the preserve of skilled hobbyists, they are increasingly part of advertisers' strategies to create so-called "viral" campaigns. What is it about the best e-mails which makes them so compelling?
1. They must be funny. And, for some reason, it's a fairly coarse sort of humour which does best. Pete Brown, who runs Boreme.com, a site which collates the best viral e-mails, says: "Sport and sex do very well - really because it's the laddish humour which seems to be most popular. They work well for homemade or commercial e-mails, especially if they are crude or gross."
2. If they're not funny, then they have to be topical or somehow "shocking, clever, strange or surprising". Topical ones are usually homemade, simply because professionally made e-mails take longer to produce. A good example was David Beckham taking tips from Jonny Wilkinson on how to kick the ball over the bar, says Pete Brown. "There was a thought bubble over Beckham's head which registered simply 'ball... bar... over... win'." It worked well after England lost to Portugal in Euro 2004 - Beckham having missed a crucial penalty - because it was done quickly, he says.
The Wilkinson/Beckham picture from summer 2004
3. E-mails must be a bit risky to be shocking or funny, says Chris Hassell of creative agency DS.Emotion, which makes viral e-mails for advertisers. Some advertisers will want to have a viral e-mail for people to send round as part of their campaigns, he says, but rein it back too much and "it ends up being just like a TV advert - and who wants to send that round?"
4. But not too risky. People know that employers can - and sometimes do - monitor people's inboxes. Anything that is too explicit, particularly sexually, is unlikely to be forwarded very far.
Clips of George Bush always popular - this one was rated as most popular of 2004 by Boreme
5. They must be in the right format. In the early days, most e-mails which would get sent round would be in plain text. Doctored photographs came later, but Pete Brown says the growth of movies has been marked in the last year. "That's linked to the rise of broadband, probably. But people's expectations about interactivity have increased too, and if the viral is a game, it's got to be good."
6. You've got to want to be associated with it. The whole point of sending an e-mail on to a friend is that it becomes a reflection on the sender, says Pete Brown. "A good e-mail that you pass on to your friends says something about you. You are choosing to pass on this particular joke to this particular friend. It partly says that you care about them to bother keeping open a channel of communication. It also says something about the type of person you are."
7. If it's a commercially-produced e-mail, then it's got to be for the right sort of brand. Chris Hassell thinks Ford made a mistake by distancing itself from an advert which showed a cat being decapitated by a sunroof. Following complaints from animal protection charities, the car giant said the film was an agency's idea they had never endorsed or intended for release. But Hassell says it would have done little to the brand's image among young people to have said nothing.
Controversial film about the Ford Ka, in which the cat's head is cut off by the sunroof
8. If movies have come from an advertising agency, the branding must be very subtle. "People aren't stupid - they're not going to send round something which is basically a TV advert," says Hassell. Brown adds that the e-mailed game which impressed him most was actually quite difficult to complete, and it was only when players reached the final level that they discovered it had come from Dyson.
9. Don't be politically correct says Brown. "We have never found a PC viral e-mail," he says. If it's about politicians, then it cannot show any respect.
10. Ignore points one to nine - Brown says finding the right e-mail which will go round the world depends on having the X-factor, something novel which will grab people's attention and distract them long enough from their work.
Add your comments on this story, using the form below.
Many joke emails contain a simple list of gags. I wish people would think twice about forwarding these on because the poor comedians who wrote those jokes are standing on a stage every night with a section of the audience thinking "Rubbish; he's nicked that from an email."
Geoff Taylor, Bury
I like the premise that thoughts and ideas pass from person to person in this way, but only the best idea's survive! The ones the thinker feels are worthy enough to pass on. This theory already exists and its called memetics, meme theory. Just like genetics. The idea that thoughts pass from one being to another like viruses. The term 'meme' comes from Richard Dawkins, author of The Selfish Gene. Wonderful.
Darren Stobbs, Coventry
I dislike those forwarded e-mails. half the time they are not funny. and the other half are files I cannot open. I treat them as spam.
Unfortunately being in the habit of sharing "viral emails" with your friends and colleagues, also increases the risks of being infected by a computer worm or virus. Virus writers have often disguised their malicious code as humorous, sexy or non-politically correct content. Don't want to sound like a killjoy, but maybe it would be better and safer if people didn't risk their data, and shared their jokes down the pub rather than over the net?
Graham Cluley, Oxford
Many companies have a zero tolerance policy to forwarding this type of e-mail, and doing so could cost an employee his or her job. Is it therefore responsible to create them in the first place? Is it responsible to pass them on? And is a consequence that all humour eventually will be effectively prohibited from public life?
Geoff, Newton Abbot, England
Please tell the world to stop sending emails that say stuff like "send this is 50 friends in the next 5 seconds to make a wish, if you don't its really bad luck" they are so obviously rubbish and are starting to really do my head in!!!
You missed off the rule of "Tugging at the heart-strings". I have received no end of forwarded emails following the Tsunami, of people trying to discover who certain children are, and adding "send to everyone you know". The latest one I received didn't even have contact information on the off-chance it was received by someone who knew the child. I predict that these emails will stay in circulation for months or even years to come.
Stephen Buxton, Coventry, UK
If it makes me laugh, it'll probably get passed on.
If its quirky or "is it true" or "that's odd" it'll get passed on to people who have the same sense of humour or taste for the quirky and odd. Taste free ones which don't fall into either of the above tend to get binned.
Rod M, Newhaven ,UK
I detest viral emails and I still receive plenty of them from people who've just found me on the Internet ( old school friends and the like ).
To me, they're little more than a substitute for having something to say yourself. Presumably, the senders think that by sending them, some small amount of credibility will be assigned to them for their 'effort'.
Paul Taylor, Liverpool, England
Ok they're a good laugh, but video clips and other funnies also take up huge amounts of bandwidth, lock mailboxes, and stop other emails from coming into your inbox, and sometimes its outright annoying!
This morning I deleted yet another email - this time a slideshow - from the friend who seems to have to send on everything, including all the standard hoaxes and chains. Worthy doesn't come into it, she passes on the lot to between 12 and 20 people each time. I really wish she'd stop and have dropped hints but to no avail. Most are pretty rubbish too!
Jim Brown, UK
BORING. Listen to these whingers! I sit at my desk all day, bored out of my head until my "you have mail" icon comes up, I pray it's a viral e-mail to relieve the tedium. Either the other people responding to this topic have a sense of humour failure, they love their jobs too much or they are mean bosses who can't stand the thought of their employees enjoying themselves in work time. PS I have hundreds of them if you're bored.
Andy Green, Plymouth UK
I put it to you that the rise of email forwarded jokes is killing the simple art of joke telling! If you think about it, only a few years ago every time you met up with friends down the pub someone would inevitably tell a joke, which you'd end up repeating to someone else, adding your own embellishments, thus refining the joke, or even evolving (through different peoples versions) into a new one. These days, no one seems to tell jokes anymore, which I really miss. If I read a good joke on an email (which happens seldom), I make a point of not forwarding it, but telling it to someone face-to-face. I urge everyone to do the same! After all, half of joke-telling is surely to see the reaction in the listener to know whether or not it is funny (or whether they get it). Email is all well and good for 'hilarious' movie clips and altered Photoshop funnies...but for god's sake let's keep talking to each other!
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