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Ads that entertain: YouTube’s top spots of 2011

By Michael Learmonth

Senior Editor For Advertising Age

Editor’s note: Yesterday, we looked back on the “most viewed” YouTube videos of 2011. Today, we invited Advertising Age’s Michael Learmonth to reflect on the most viewed video ads of the year.

We always knew people liked to watch the ads. At least some ads, like the great ones people talk about after the Super Bowl. Then YouTube came along in 2005 and brought with it the notion that ads can be great content that earn their way onto screens of all types, spread by consumers who vote, share, like, comment, blog, plus-one, or even create response videos or spoofs.

YouTube is the ultimate meritocracy for video, and advertisers are adapting to this world by creating content that people want to share. It’s no surprise, for example, that among the top-10 most-watched ads on YouTube in 2011 are two Super Bowl ads.

Most watched video ads of the year (eliminating music videos and trailers):
1. VW - The Force
2. T-Mobile - Royal Wedding
3. Chrysler - Imported From Detroit
4. DC Shoes - Ken Block's Gymkhana Four: The Hollywood Megamercial
5. smartwater - Jennifer Aniston goes viral
6. Team Hot Wheels - The Yellow Driver's World Record Jump
7. Old Spice - Scent Vacation
8. Apple - Introducing Siri on iPhone 4S
9. Samsung - Unleash Your Fingers
10. adidas - D Rose: adiZero Rose 2 The Bull

What is surprising is that the majority of YouTube’s top “ads” of 2011 (seems strange to call them that) never appeared on traditional TV at all.

Videos like T-Mobile’s Royal Wedding, itself a spoof of the JK Wedding Dance, were made for the web and made to amuse, entertain, and to be passed around, as are mini-movies like DC Shoe’s Gymkhana Four, stunts like Hot Wheel’s record jump, and Old Spice’s “Scent Vacation.”

Even the two Super Bowl ads making the list, Chrysler and Volkswagen, were part of elaborate campaigns made to live significant lives on the web. In the past, advertisers treated their Super Bowl spots like state secrets, but Volkswagen posted “The Force” on YouTube two weeks before the Super Bowl last year, and had 10 million views before the game began. Chrysler took the opposite approach, but created a video four times the length of a typical TV ad, perfect for extended watching on the web after the game.

For brands, creating great content—advertainment, if you will—isn’t just for big TV events like the Super Bowl anymore. Increasingly, advertisers and their agencies are focusing on the content and the strategy, and letting that content distribute itself. That doesn’t mean they aren’t doing traditional advertising. Indeed all of these campaigns were backed up by significant spending to seed and promote these videos on YouTube and elsewhere. But paid media only gets you so far. In the end, it doesn’t matter if they paid $3 million for 30-seconds in the Super Bowl or much less to get the conversation started. In the end, it’s the content that counts.