3 PR and marketing lessons from CarMax’s answer to viral video

The used-car retailer recently used YouTube to grab its the spotlight after a filmmaker’s humorous attempt to sell his partner’s car made waves online.

What started as an idea to satirically advertise his girlfriend’s car turned into marketing gold.

On Nov. 2, Max Lanman posted a YouTube video advertising the 1996 Honda Accord that his then-girlfriend (now fiancée), Carrie Hollenbeck owned. Lanman used car commercials’ serious tone for his mock ad’s inspiration, and the video has racked up more than 5.95 million views:

A week later, CarMax responded with its own YouTube video, offering Hollenbeck $20,000 for her car—along with a few other items featured in the video:

Lanman reported that Hollenbeck took CarMax’s offer:

CarMax also shared the news in a tweet that crowed over its “new” items:

Here are three lessons you can take away from CarMax’s recent success:

1. Humor sells.

You know you’re doing good when you make other PR pros jealous.

Jake Jacobson, director of public relations at Children’s Mercy Kansas City says:

I love CarMax’s response! It’s witty while staying on-brand (sneaking in a few key marketing messages), and it keeps the focus on the original video by paying tribute to all of the details. It immediately made me want to go back and watch the original again, because I had noticed the cat and the coffeemaker, but somehow missed the mug and sandwich. Kudos to CarMax for having fun with this – and most important, offering a solution – while not stealing the spotlight. You know it’s a great idea when you immediately wish you had thought of it, and I’m sitting here with some creative envy. Well played, CarMax. Well played.

Brand managers who learn to embrace humor—and speak the language of their customers—can go far, especially online.

“This a clear example of social listening,” says Laiza Santos, who works with Mural Arts, Philadelphia Latino Film Festival and more. “CarMax was doing just that when they found this video then responded in a way that is so true to their personality and identity online and in commercials.”

“I give them high marks for acting fast—and for the use of humor in the response,'” says Michelle Garrett, owner of Garrett Public Relations. “Brands should take a lesson from CarMax on how to seize an opportunity and make the most of it. Don’t take yourselves so seriously and tap into human emotion to win the day.”

Santos also said that listening online and using humor can give brand managers the opportunity to call for user-generated content. That can, in turn, boost engagement.

“It’s that ability to step beyond the usual content we create on our own and to be open to allowing our audience/fans to create the narrative for us that keeps consumers coming back and others joining in,” Santos says.

2. Look at engagement and success metrics in context.

CarMax’s YouTube video didn’t come near the viral success of Lanman’s video—CarMax’s response currently has 321,491 views—but that number far exceeds the remainder of its videos, which have between 40 and 150 views.

The company also garnered praise online for its clever response.




It’s a reminder for PR pros to consider metrics within the proper context. In a communications landscape where everyone wants to go viral, it’s crucial to understand what the numbers are telling you—and what you must do to capitalize on or repeat successes (or pivot from lackluster attempts).

Don’t be too consumed with numbers when it comes to follower counts, either. You might want to work with a social media user who has millions of followers, but an online influencer who has a portion of followers in a highly engaged and niche community might more effectively boost your brand.

3. Embrace trends wisely.

“CarMax worked quickly to jump on this viral video and nab itself some attention,” Garrett says.

That enabled the company to get a big bang for their buck—or 20,000 of them.

Katie Harrington, a content and communications pro based in Ireland, says:

Sometimes marketing is just about spotting an incredible opportunity. There are so many organisations out there that put months of planning and tens of thousands of dollars into trying to create a viral video – CarMax made an instant decision to piggyback on the success of the Fularious TV ad that was already gaining massive traction. They spent $20,000—not on a car—but on a marketing campaign that took next to no time to turn around and was guaranteed to get attention. It’s a win-win.

That doesn’t mean you should jump on every trend, however. Brad Jakeman, former president of PepsiCo’s global beverage group, learned that lesson after the company’s protest-themed commercial with Kendall Jenner brought the brand harsh criticism.

“We are now publishing thousands of pieces of content,” Jakeman told AdAge’s E.J. Schultz. “There are going to be these issues.”

You can avoid potential problems by ensuring that the trend fits your brand messaging and tone—and by being prepared in case consumers take offense.

“We have seen others newsjack—and when it is done well about the right thing that fits with the brand, then it brings plaudits,” says Amanda Coleman, a UK PR pro working in the public sector. “Unfortunately, in many cases as communicators we need to exercise caution. So, get the right fit, the right message and the right approach for it to work for you.”

(Image via)

Topics: PR

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