Insight: Decoding Viral Content Using Archetypes

Written by
Nate Fleming
Nate Fleming
multiple authors
Updated on
June 3, 2024 2:09 PM
Unlocking the secrets of viral content: Dive into the enigmatic power of archetypes, illuminating why some content resonates while others fade into obscurity.

There’s a game humans play that goes something like this. We capture an image or video, post it to the internet, give it a little push and wait to see how many people will see it, respond to it in some way and share it. Millions do it every day. And every day something new “goes viral.” And it’s pretty much impossible to predict what will and will not go viral. Or so it seems.

Take The Couch, an abandoned sofa along side a busy street in West Melbourne, Florida, for example. Or The Dress, a photo of a black and blue dress that many thought was white and gold. (And probably still do.) And lest we forget, There’s Waldo, a piece of content we (redpepper) published recently featuring a robot we trained to find…wait for it…Waldo. (4.75 million views and counting.)

What makes these things so sticky? And why do people have an almost automatic tendency to engage with and share certain pieces of content and flat out ignore others?

Explanations Abound.

Chip & Dan Heath, authors of Made to Stick, contend that viral or “sticky” content maps to a set of criteria they call the S.U.C.C.E.S model: Simple, Unexpected, Concrete, Credentialed, Emotional, Story.

Then there’s Jonah Berger’s S.T.E.P.P.S model: Social currency, Triggers, Emotion, Public, Practical value, Stories.

Other viral content gurus offer explanations that include social dynamics. Kevin Allocca, YouTube’s Head of Culture and Trends, cites “Tastemakers, Communities of Participation and/or Unexpectedness” as the commonalities among the most viewed videos. Whereas Emerson Spartz points to a relationship between Virality Coefficient (number of people one is sharing content with) and Cycle Time (how long it takes one to share content with someone else).

There are more. Lots more. And with each theory, the waters get a little more murky, leaving one with the sense that the more we try to explain why things go viral, the harder it is to understand. If that’s the goal, understanding, then perhaps there’s a deeper and much simpler and more singular explanation.


The definitions of the word archetype range from those synonymous with the term stereotype, to a much deeper philosophical concept rooted in evolutionary and Jungian psychology. We’ll point to the latter as as a fundamental factor in the proliferation of “viral” content.

Dr. Anthony Stevens, author of Archetype: A Natural History of the Self says of archetypes:

“They reaffirm that the human experience and human behaviour are complex products of environmental and hereditary forces. The environment activates the archetype which mediates the experience and the behavior. Thus archetypes are intermediate between genes and experiences: they are the organizing schemata by which the innate becomes personal.”

In much simpler terms, archetypes are essentially “genetic code” and function like a software program that enables us to attach meaning to people, places, situations and events. It works like this. We experience something through our senses and this program kicks into action with one goal: to make sense of things as quickly as possible and inform our next move accordingly.

This all happens in a place in our minds that is well beyond the reach of our awareness. Instantaneously.

Now, about that couch in Melbourne.

A couch isn’t just couch. It is an artifact of the basic human need for connection and lands squarely in the realm of the Everyman archetype. In a world divided over differences, a couch is a reminder that for all of our differences, there are some things we all agree on. Among them is the importance of having a place to call home and people to share it with. Which explains fully why an abandoned couch in a high traffic setting could not abide. It didn’t make sense. It needed company. As do all of us, if we are to survive.

The Couch struck a chord with its archetypal essence of “belonging” by bringing forth feelings associated with the absence of it. No surprise that eventually, a lonely abandoned couch became the centerpiece of a place people couldn’t wait to share with one another.

Okay. What of that dress?

By now we all know that this dress is black and blue. Yet, something weird is clearly going on here. Which brings us back to differences. Differences in the way we all perceive color and in one’s understanding of how a camera interprets light. These differences highlight a basic human need for clarity and understanding. Both of which are values of the Sage archetype—that yearning within all of us to understand the world around us. Because with clarity and understanding come happiness, maybe even paradise.

The Dress brought people’s knowledge (or lack thereof) to bear. It also tested one’s ability to shift their view when presented with information that was counter to their perception. (An exercise in enlightenment.) And, of course, it certainly made a lot of people happy knowing that (at least in this case) they could trust their own perceptions.

So, what about Waldo?

We pushed out this little gem a couple of weeks ago and before we knew it we were getting calls from major news sources foreign and domestic.

Keep in mind, we’ve done all sorts of things like this before. We taught shiny new Siri to pour a beer. We created a drone that delivers sausage to your cookout. We even created a facial recognition customer service system called “Facedeals,” which also got a bunch of attention. But not like this. What’s going on here?

One explanation is that one person who saw it tweeted it to his millions of followers. Fair enough. Still, that doesn’t explain why it became news.

When you examine There’s Waldo through an archetypal lens, however, things become less mysterious.

For starters, this entire concept is rooted in the idea of artificial intelligence. Which is a compelling and archetypal (Magician) construct in and of itself. Still, AI is not what made this sticky. It wasn’t even Waldo, for that matter. Because archetypes aren’t surface level constructs. They operate in the unconscious mind. And if you’re looking for clues as to why something is compelling, you have to go deeper.

Turns out, your brain has to work pretty hard to find Waldo (or Wally, if you’re in the UK.) So hard, in fact, a data scientist once developed an optimal search strategy humans can employ to assist them in finding Waldo faster. Using this method, he was able to zoom through most of the illustrations and locate Waldo in less than 10 seconds. For the record, our little AI bot is able to do it in about half the time. Which invokes certain Hero qualities. But that’s still not why it was sticky.

There’s Waldo taps into the basic need for human connection, but in a different way than The Couch. It’s less about belonging and more about living in the moment, having a great time and lightening up in the world. And, while the act of creating the bot invokes multiple archetypal qualities, the experience of witnessing highly advanced technology at play in a light-hearted comical way lands invokes the Jester archetype in profound way. Which is powerful. Because the more serious and less human things become, the more humans crave and need a little bit of levity.

And nothing connects us to one another more than a little bit of laughter.

As a fundamental aspect of the human experience, archetypes give us access to the inaccessible. They provide clues as to what may or may not trigger certain thoughts and feelings that will lead to predictable behaviors. Which makes them an invaluable tool when looking for insights into why humans do what they do.

They are also an indispensable source of inspiration when it comes to creating content capable of penetrating the unconscious mind deeply enough to elicit immediate action.

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