Last week, “the dress” nearly caused an internet war…all because people couldn’t decide what color the dress was.

The war began when one girl posted a picture of a dress on her Tumblr page and wrote, “guys please help me – is this dress white and gold, or blue and black? Me and my friends can't agree and we are freaking the f–k out.”

To some, the dress looked blue and black.

To others, it looked white and gold.

And then the social media war began:

●  I don't understand this odd dress debate and I feel like it's a trick somehow. I'm confused and scared.PS it's OBVIOUSLY BLUE AND BLACK — Taylor Swift (@taylorswift13) February 27, 2015

●  My daughter thinks it's blue and green and we are headed to the ER — Ben Smith (@BuzzFeedBen) February 27, 2015

●  *stops furiously scribbling amidst dozens of coffee cups*there is no dress. it is not the dress that changes colors, it is only yourself. — Denny's (@DennysDiner) February 27, 2015

●  I wish I had the skillz to photoshop that dress onto a llama. — Lindsey Turrentine (@lturrentine) February 27, 2015

Then major media outlets jumped into the fray:

●  Buzzfeed posted over a half a dozen articles on the dress.

●  Wired posted a scientific analysis of the photo and explained why no one could agree on its color.

●  Business Insider profiled the dress and the subsequent Twitter war.

●  The New York Times even posted an article.

And so on.

Many of the media articles focused on the scientific reasons behind everyone’s disagreements over the color.

But what about the viral phenomenon itself?

What caused people to go haywire over a simple dress?

Here are just three characteristics that define viral campaigns and natural viral phenomena…

1. Emotions

Naturally occurring viral events can teach marketers a lot about how to pre-engineer their own viral campaigns. Almost every viral event has a natural “hook” – that is, something that instantly grabs people’s attention. And typically these types of viral events grab attention by grabbing emotion.

For instance, the Justine Sacco story went viral in a matter of hours. One thoughtless tweet spread like wildfire and cost her more than her job. The very fact that the tweet and her story ruffles feathers proves that emotions are a driving force behind many viral events.

This is one reason that news media focuses on emotionally charged sensationalism – it has a higher probability of going viral.

But how does a simple dress become viral? The blue and black (or white and gold?) dress probably has more in common with the toilet paper debate.

2. A Reason to Talk

Some argue that toilet paper should hang in front of the roll, while others argue that it should hang behind the roll. This debate has become a permanent fixture and is so controversial that Wikipedia has devoted over 5,000 words to the toilet paper debate.

When you look at this debate and the dress debate, you’ll find that one reason people won’t stop arguing about something is because they naturally disagree.

Hardwired differences in perception – in the case of the dress – also have similarities between other ongoing debates, from the toilet paper debate to political orientation.

Obviously, marketers shouldn’t make use of topics that are as controversial as politics or religion. And it’s not always necessary for a campaign to cause disagreements in order to go viral, as we saw with the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge.

The key is getting people to talk about something…a lot.

And one of the best ways to do that is to make them disagree.

3. Simplicity

Not everything that goes viral relies on natural disagreements. But almost everything that goes viral relies is simple.

Consider Twitter, the micro-blogging platform that spreads ideas faster than any other medium. Twitter is arguably the most viral online channel, perhaps because each tweet is limited to 140 characters.

This level of simplicity forces people to be brief and only express one idea at a time. Complex ideas just don’t fit inside this micro-blogging platform.

Simple ideas are immediately digestible, which means that people can spread them easily through micro-blogging platforms and social media.

When simple ideas are combined with an emotional hook and something that sparks discussion – like hardwired differences in perception – then people are more likely to talk about those ideas.


Not every viral campaign is the same. Some scientists, for instance, claim that many viral campaigns have practical value. But cat videos or the dress debate can hardly be said to have practical value.

And other campaigns, such as ALS Ice Bucket Challenge or viral commercials, don’t always rely on hardwired differences in perception. But all viral campaigns grab people’s emotions, attention. And they all give people a reason to talk about the viral content.