Most savvy web surfers know what happens when Diet Coke and Mentos are mixed together: explosions of both the chemical and internet varieties. For those of you who are not “in the know”, I am referring to the internet sensation started by a couple of fellow Mainers, Fritz Grobe and Stephen Voltz, earlier this year.
Donning white lab coats and protective eye gear, the two mixed Mentos, Diet Coke, and streaming internet technology into one of the most explosive viral video cocktails of all time. Their short video has since been viewed over 6 million times, earning them a spot alongside the Dancing Baby and Mahir “I Kiss You” Cagri in the internet hall of fame, not to mention spots on the David Letterman Show and Today Show.
This video also inspired a mind-boggling number of people to do some mentos and coke “research” of their own. Mentos reported an eruption in sales this summer with its brand recognition skyrocketing from 16% to over 80%. One Mentos spokesman said that the original video - along with the 5000 backyard, copycat videos it spawned - were the equivalent of $10 million worth of free advertising. As someone who works in the area of promoting foods of a different sort, I was looking to understand the technological and social forces that allow a couple of quirky guys with a cheap video camera, an internet connection, and a sweet tooth to become pitchmen of the year.
When I started exploring the internet video phenomenon, I discovered that the communications world had changed and that no one had given me the new user manual. It wasn’t the first time this had happened. Although I consider myself more plugged into technological trends than the average adult, I still find myself occasionally asking a young child to help me solve complex technological problems like using a DVD player or a cellphone.
The video sharing website that is at the epicenter of this seismic communications change is YouTube.com. According to the company’s press materials, YouTube’s users – who are primarily young people - view 100 million video clips per day (yes, you read that right) online and upload more than 65,000 new videos each day. The site is now ranked 11th in terms of global web traffic, dwarfing more traditional information outlets like the NewYorkTimes.com (rank: 88th) or CNN.com (rank: 32nd).
As both a parent and a communications professional working in the area of sustainable food and agriculture, I wanted to see what type of “food content” was available through YouTube and did a few random keyword searches to see how many different videos each search term would yield. The results may or may not surprise you:
McDonald’s commercial: 425
Burger King: 1230
Taco Bell: 1187
local agriculture: 11
CSA farm: 4
food security: 26
sustainable cuisine: 0
It is very tempting at this point to conclude that YouTube has become just like any other mainstream communications medium where messages featuring unhealthy and unsustainably-produced foods outnumber their healthy and sustainable counterparts by a longshot. Think about it: when’s the last time you saw a TV commercial for locally-grown root vegetables?
There is an important distinction though. In the case of YouTube, unlike TV, the content users are also the content creators. With the internet, we have the video content that we are prepared to produce ourselves, for better or worse. One thing we cannot afford to do is ignore the trends driving this communications revolution. The number of people with broadband internet connections has doubled from 25 million to 50 million in the past three years and is expected to continue increasing at this pace. Our ability to reach this growing audience with progressive video messages is not a function of our finances (Grobe and Voltz created their video on a dime), but of our will and our creativity.
To the surprise and initial horror of my 14 year old son, I’ve recently become a YouTube content creator myself. Although my short “food-for-thought” video isn’t likely to land me on the David Letterman Show, it received a thumbs-up from my son who may well be my toughest and most important audience.
Roger Doiron works for the Eat Local Foods Coalition of Maine and is founder of Kitchen Gardeners International, a nonprofit network of 2700 people from 60 countries working to grow a better food system.