This award-winning promotional clip for a Spanish NGO is the Robin Hood of viral videos: by outwitting YouTube’s automated search algorithms, it takes from the rich and gives to the poor, essentially beating the advertising agency at its own game in order to help the homeless on the streets of Barcelona. Michel de Certeau would have been proud.

THE MOST BORING VIRAL VIDEO was uploaded to the website of Arrels fundació in 2015 with the following video description:

This video talks of luxury, house, mansion, friends, cars, travel, first class, happiness, premium, car insurance, don’t worry, there’s no mistake in the text, read on, mobiles, handbags, love, friendship, exclusive, enjoy, dresses, clothes… Yes, read on, the youtube software is looking at us and we have to trick it, beauty, youth, dream home, mortgages, mobile telephony, finance, new cars, shoes, medical insurance, banks, credit cards, mortgage simulator, house insurance, adsl offers and all kinds of words which, linked to this video, through youtube software, make advertisers automatically pay to appear round about, so they unwittingly help the Arrels Foundation and thousands of homeless.”

THE MOST BORING VIRAL VIDEO is a well-made example of subversive media action strategies and clever media guerrilla tactics, a term originally coined by cultural theorist Michel de Certeau. Based on calculations regarding the behaviour of YouTube search algorithms, the above keywords (tailored to reflect the core ideology of commodity capitalism) are included in the video’s meta tags. As the advertising industry is known to value such keywords as indications towards an attractive advertising environment, the present spot by Spanish aid organisation “Arrels fundació” purposefully makes a false promise of capitalistic content it doesn’t intend to keep, thereby erecting a comfortingly alluring structure of keywords – akin to a Potemkin village – in order to tap the industry for money.

As is the case in the tale of Robin Hood, the money stolen, in this case: made off of monetised, automatically implemented advertisements, is then redistributed to the poor, in this case: the homeless living on the streets of Barcelona. While doing so, the video openly reveals its sleight of hand, proudly acknowledging its algorithmic trickery as a method of slyly resisting the ever-increasing influence of large corporations and goods providers in the Web 2.0., a network in which the user’s attention nowadays directly corresponds to monetary value and is therefore viewed and traded as a commodity.

In an up-front but nonetheless ironic manner, THE MOST BORING VIRAL VIDEO emphasises just how different it is on a technical-aesthetic level compared to both the omnipresent implementation of high-end search algorithms as well as the deceptively gleaming surface of the consumer world. By boasting a markedly ‘poor’ aesthetic quality on purpose, the video attempts to further underline its David-versus-Goliath approach: a simple green screen, really just a panel of dyed fabric, is set up behind the speaker; his surroundings, perhaps the yard of an abandoned building, are run-down and in generally bad shape; no electronic head slate is used as a start signal, instead the filming commences after a simple clapping of hands.

Video images, retro fonts and graphic elements seemingly pulled straight from the early days of YouTube are displayed in the video’s background; the speaker – the oldest method of communicating information, by the way – directly addresses the viewer with clear and simple language; and the background images illustrate his remarks concerning the logic of online cash flows with accentuated redundancy and witty simplicity. It takes so little, such is the underlying message, to outwit the techno-capitalist apparatus: cute cat pictures, the right keywords, a modest request to keep watching till the end of the video coupled with the paradoxical promise of extremely boring content. In short: a proposal of joyful subversion combined with, and made even more attractive by, the awareness of doing some good at the same time.

The viewer’s commitment costs him or her absolutely nothing (other than 30 seconds of his or her time and perhaps a click or two in order to share the video with “friends”) – being socially involved and making one’s own social involvement known has rarely been simpler. Without any effort whatsoever one gains access to the group of “sophisticated users”, a crowd of onliners who enjoy savoring the subversive nature of such actions – actions aimed not at charging the seemingly impenetrable bulwark of commodity capitalism in open battle, but rather aimed at inconspicuously milking it in its sleep. In order to keep this whole subversive affair as exciting as possible, the video makes a point of avoiding any kind of priggish, morally charged pleas – attempts to evoke feelings of guilt or shame are purposefully excluded from the campaign.

The homeless themselves, the beneficiaries of the video’s success and the reason for its very existence, appear only briefly and matter-of-factly: they are involved in the request to share the video, an appeal put forward by the speaker who so charismatically and eloquently manages to convince us to take the necessary action for his cause. Only once does one of his claims – when he claims to have, until recently, been living on the very road depicted in the background – raise minor doubt. Whether the video actually succeeded in achieving the desired financial outcome is, however, beyond our knowledge. According to various press reports the video had, just a few months after its release, gained hundreds of thousands of hits. Unfortunately though, as the original upload by Arrels was eventually hit with a take-down strike for “violation of YouTube’s polices on harassment and bullying” and is therefore no longer viewable, those numbers can no longer be verified.

According to German website, an “archive for creative advertising”, the video (which is still accessible via the YouTube channel “TopAgencias”, URL: has won many awards, including two Cannes Lions (silver in the “Online Film” category, bronze in the “Branded Content and Entertainment” category). It remains a successful example of NGOs enhancing the reach and success of their civic engagement efforts by cooperating with commercial advertising agencies and making use of the instruments and rhetorical strategies they bring to the table.

Britta Hartmann