My first reaction to watching the Zack Johnson videos on YouTube was the feeling that it just didn’t belong. It was too good. Not good in a I’m-going-to-stop-right-now-and-tweet-this-out kind of way, which is what the creators intended when they cooked up this would-be viral project. No, it was more the immediate feeling that they outed themselves before we even had a chance to get sucked in.
The site, Zack16.com, is a little too perfect. Granted, this wasn’t exactly intended to come off as an amateur rouse, but it’s clear they hoped the clever story would shine enough to get some social media juice out of it. But that in the end may be where they missed, telegraphing a professional-level ad campaign and setting the expectation level too high.
The storyline takes its time to develop, but right off the bat we find out that Zack, an unassuming 16 year-old high schooler has woken up to find his “boy parts” have been replaced with “girl parts.” Each episode is a new day, with the beautifully shot videos remarkably void of brand placement until “Day 9” when Zack gets his first period during class and scuttles into the girls’ bathroom to find some Tampax relief.
In the branded entertainment camp, Zack16 falls more on the extended commercial side of the room. This came straight out of Proctor & Gamble’s Chicago-based ad agency Leo Burnett.
“It’s a learning lab out on the net,” said a P&G spokesman to AdAge, saying that the campaign was “just playing around with some different ideas. You can tell it’s not very heavily branded at all.” The experiment is apparently much cheaper to produce than traditional ad spots, even if most web series producers would drool over the mid six-figures budget. “It was inexpensive for us to do this one little effort and kind of get a feel for how much pickup it gets, if it goes viral or if it doesn’t,” the spokesman added.
Well that’s a good thing they’re not betting the farm on this one. So far the series isn’t exactly a viral success, netting a combined 66,830 views to date on YouTube and another 8,346 on Funny or Die. And in what is probably standard playbook by now, there’s the requisite Twitter account set up for Zack, which tweets out a mix of promotional links and somewhat off-putting in-character banter.
One reader pointed out it’s similarity to a 2006 P&G spot Men With Cramps, which faired marginally better. It’s not clear if this campaign will pick up additional traction, perhaps through some much-needed TV promotion? What it does show is that even well intended, professionally-produced branded web series aren’t immune to the finicky tastes of an increasingly fragmented YouTube audience. The content itself isn’t terrible, but it isn’t viral bait either.