The buffaloes on King Street and the secret to viral marketing


Two buffalo run wild on King St, Newtown.

Two buffalo run wild on King St, Newtown.

“Sweetie, you know how we were filming the TV ad with the buffaloes today? Well, they broke loose and caused havoc on King St in Newtown.”

This phone call from my husband heralded a text book example of viral marketing and a story that would have people laughing for days.

My husband Chris, who owns a film locations business, was working on a South Korean TV commercial for a new mobile phone. The shoot had an array of crazy elements including giant ten pin bowling pins, balls dropping from the sky and, to top it off, a couple of water buffaloes.

As a locations scout and manager, one of Chris’ roles is to deliver the impossible. The creative team wanted two water buffaloes grazing in Sydney Park. Chris’ job was to demonstrate that the animals were tame, would be tethered at all times, and therefore obtain the appropriate approvals from council and the police.

The big day arrived.  All was going well until one buffalo was spooked and broke free from its rope. The Korean crew, unaccustomed to a roaming buffalo on the streets of Seoul, headed for the trees.  The other buffalo soon escaped from its confines too.

In their collective buffalo wisdom, the great beasts decided that the park wasn’t much fun and that the Princes Highway looked a far more desirable place, so they headed off for Newtown.

The Australian crew channelled their inner Crocodile Dundees, and frantically attempted to herd them back to their enclosure, but to no avail – they were determined to have their 15 seconds of fame. The grips jumped on their custom-built quad bike with the animal wrangler in tow and took off to avert disaster.

As the two lolloping creatures crossed the highway, miraculously avoiding trucks and cars, Chris realised he had no choice.  The emergency services was called.

It was then that the story broke. Twitter feeds shared the surprising sight.  Video footage was uploaded.  People called to share the story on talk back radio.  The story took on a life of its own.  Within a matter of hours, the rampaging water buffalo story had hit every major newspaper, radio station, TV network and social media site in the country.  What’s more, the story went global – because in so many ways this was the perfect story.

Newtown Fire Brigade interviewed by Kochie on Sunrise

Newtown Fire Brigade interviewed by Kochie on Sunrise

So, what made this such a perfect story, and what does it say about the machinations of contemporary media? Here are the key elements:

  1. Shock value: People everywhere did a ‘double take’. The train of thought ran from “Did I just see two buffaloes?”  to “This must be a set-up”, to “There are actually two buffaloes on King Street! I have footage to prove it.”
  2. Location: The denizens of Double Bay would have been less than amused by the interlopers, but on the colourful, crazy streets of Newtown, where anything goes, the introduction of two buffaloes is inherently funny.  As one talk back caller put it “I thought ‘Oh my God, there are two buffalo’ … and then I thought, ‘ah well, it is Newtown’.”
  3. Near calamity: Be under no illusions, this story could have ended disastrously.  And yet, it was this knife-edge balance with danger that added something special that made it perfect for social media.
  4. Drama: Contributing to the high drama was the crew, hurtling along on a quad bike behind the buffalo, yelling for people to get out of the way.
  5. Crowds of people with mobile phones: 10am on a weekday is a busy time on King Street. The buffaloes’ two kilometre run provided maximum exposure for people wanting to catch them on film.  It also enabled the story to be broken by the general public.
  6. Heroes save the day: Everyone loves ‘firies’, and the Newtown Fire Brigade just happened to be in the right place at right time.  They helped the crew to corral the buffaloes into a lady’s front yard.
  7. Aussie sense of humour: There was something about this story that appealed to the slightly rugged, wild sense of Australians.  While the Koreans felt a devastating loss of face, the Aussies could see the funny side.
  8. Classic one liners: The story spawned all manner of classic one liners, from the firey saying “I’ve seen a lot of bull in my time here, but never anything like this”, the lady who, indignant at the damage to her front yard, complained that “they’ve ruined my azaleas”.  Another punter called up talk back radio to suggest we should take inspiration from the Running of the Bulls in Pamplona and do our own ‘Running of the Buffaloes’ each year in Newtown.
  9. Ongoing humour: The authorities were philosophical, understanding that no one intended for the buffaloes to get loose.  It was just another reinforcement of the old adage ‘never work with children and animals’. A week later, the Newtown Fire Brigade posted a sign outside the station: ‘Number of days without Buffalo Incident: 6’.  This spurred on another flurry of social media activity.
Newtown resident, Talitha Salier's wild selfie as seen on Yahoo 7 news

Newtown resident, Talitha Salier’s wild selfie as seen on Yahoo 7 news

So what’s the lesson in this story?

My husband’s lesson was obvious.  He promised the authorities to ‘never work with buffalo again’.

For me, as a marketer, it crystalised the essence of the perfect story, and reinforced just how hard it is to fake it.

In order to make a good story, you have to be authentic.

The film crew in pursuit of the buffalo as seen in The Land.

The film crew in pursuit of the buffalo as seen in The Land.

Nicole Smith has spent nearly two decades helping professional services firms to grow their businesses. A strategic marketing expert, Nicole established the Tin Shed marketing co-op in 2010. See:

This article was first published in the July/August 2014 edition of Business First magazine.

To read more about Sydney’s wild inner west and the original buffalo story see: ABC News, The Sydney Morning Herald, The Guardian or simply google ‘buffalo on king street’.

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