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Jean-Claude Van Damme's Volvo video: the art of going viral

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Jean-Claude Van Damme displays his relationship with physics.

Jean-Claude Van Damme displays his relationship with physics.

Movie star Jean-Claude Van Damme doing an improbable-looking split - with each leg set on a truck that is driving backwards.

A cute kid in a Darth Vader outfit using "special powers" to unlock car doors.

A group of adorable babies dancing with adult versions of themselves.

Showing his flexibility: Jean-Claude Van Damme has proved a hit in the Volvo advert.

Showing his flexibility: Jean-Claude Van Damme has proved a hit in the Volvo advert.

These ads have millions of views on YouTube, tons of buzz on social media and have likely have been conversation topics at dinner tables, lunchrooms and cocktail parties.

But do these popular videos from Volvo, Evian and Volkswagen - as well as ads gone viral from other brands - actually help the company?

Absolutely, say marketing experts.

In the case of the new Van Damme ad, which has nearly 7.7 million YouTube views, the publicity will not only aid the overarching Volvo brand, but it could also sell more trucks, says Mediapost.com advertising columnist Barbara Lippert.

"This is completely unique. It's an incredible human way to show the equilibrium of the steering of the truck," she says, adding that "anyone who knows anyone who drives a truck or owns a truck will mention it to them. People love this stuff."

Reaching those current truck drivers and owners was a big part of the marketing strategy, says Volvo spokesman Anders Vilhelmsson.

In using social media rather than a traditional TV ad, Volvo also hoped to boost brand awareness with young people who could be "future truck drivers," he says.

Volvo scored big with this ad, but in reality, most marketers don't come close to garnering this type of digital attention.

"Everybody wants their ads to go viral," says Ted Marzilli, CEO of consumer perception research firm BrandIndex. "But if there was a playbook to do that, you would just follow the recipe and your ad would go viral."

And while garnering views - and positive reviews- is admirable, it doesn't guarantee brand success. Sometimes, those who make it big have a big problem: folks remember the ad, but not the product it's touting.

"It only helps the advertiser if people make the connection between the content and the brand," says Toby Southgate, CEO Americas at branding agency Brand Union.

Otherwise, the viewer may recall the actors, the music or the stunts in isolation, he says.

Another issue: consumers giving creative kudos to the wrong brand. For instance, folks often get messages from Visa and MasterCard mixed up, says Marzilli.

But for marketers who get it right - and successfully link their brand to a much-viewed video- the payoff can be immense.

"A viral ad can generate 30 million views," says Jonathan Symonds, executive vice president of marketing at advertising analytics firm Ace Metrix. The cost can stretch into the millions of dollars to buy that type of reach on TV, he says.

And many people are not only open to receiving buzzed-about videos from those who pass them on, but they also seek them out themselves.

"Consumers are choosing that content," he says.

As for the Volvo video, ad columnist Lippert sees only one potential downfall, "I can't see any negative at all except if it is proven to be fake," she says.

Volvo's spokesman Vilhelmsson says the action is indeed real.

"There was a safety line" attached to Van Damme that is not visible in the ad, he says, but the actor did do the split between the moving trucks.

"There were rehearsals for several days," he says. "But what you see in the film that is one take without any breaks."

LA TIMES