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What You Can Learn From the Viral Shenanigans of Last Week Tonight With John Oliver The funny weekly news show takes serious, potentially dry subjects and turns them into viral video juggernauts

By Nina Zipkin

John Oliver is now the new queen of daytime TV, and it's all thanks to nearly $15 million worth of medical debt. Let us explain.

Last night, Oliver turned his attention to the debt-buying industry and highlighted some of its seriously shady business practices. As Oliver wrapped up the segment, he noted that the industry was deeply in need of regulation, because "as it stands, any idiot can get into it, and I can prove that to you because I'm an idiot and we started a debt-buying company and it was disturbingly easy."

In the spring, it turns out the show spent $50 to incorporate a debt-buying company in Mississippi called Central Asset Recovery Professionals, "or CARP, like the bottom-feeding fish." The company purchased a portfolio of almost $15 million worth of statute medical debt in Texas for under $60,000, which included the contact information and social security numbers of 9,000 people.

Related: What Gets Shared Online? Depends How You See It.

"We thought, instead of collecting on the money, why not forgive it? Because on one hand, it's obviously the right thing to do, but much more importantly, we'd be staging the largest one-time giveaway in television show history." Oliver then said the biggest TV giveaway to date was, you guessed it, Oprah Winfrey's infamous 2004 Favorite Things episode that spawned "You get a car, you get a car, everybody gets a car!"

Apparently, that eminently memeable moment was worth $8 million, but Last Week Tonight purchased almost twice that with the Texas medical debt. Instead of CARP taking possession of that portfolio, the show sent it to a non-profit called RIP Medical Debt to forgive the debt.

Related: Spreading The News: The Recipe For A Viral Marketing Campaign

Just as a basis of comparison, the massively popular Game of Thrones costs more than $10 million per episode to produce, so the roughly $60,050 it took to arrange the stunt and subsequent charitable donation (which the company can probably write off) is likely only a drop in the HBO bucket.

And this isn't the only financially oriented and viral segment that Last Week Tonight has rolled out recently. In February, after a piece about the shaky foundation on which presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump's brand sits, "Make Donald Drumpf Again" hats -- sold at cost on HBO's website, with neither the network nor show turning a profit -- almost immediately sold out.

Related: How These 10 Marketing Campaigns Became Viral Hits

So what can entrepreneurs learn about viral marketing from Last Week Tonight's strategy? Scott Gardner, the CEO and founder of Liquid Agency, says that companies can fall into a trap of sending content out into the world just for its own sake.

"Too often, businesses feel like just getting content out there and checking boxes is part of the game," he says. "There's a lot of really poor quality content that's produced by brands in an attempt to get awareness." But those who invest the time to make sure the campaign comes from their unique point of view will break through all the noise, Gardner says.

Related: 5 Secrets to Making Your Startup Go Viral

Leesa Wytock, director of digital experience at global brand strategy, design and experience firm Siegel+Gale, agrees with Gardner about the necessity for an incisive and specific point of view.

"Viral content is essentially contagious. It must be useful, positive, and trigger an emotion such as anger, fear, humor, etc.," she says. "John Oliver's strategy is genius because his content consistently meets these criteria. And most importantly, it's high quality, thought provoking and has a specific POV -- so it is, and feels, sharp. It has the long-tail appeal, not a flash in the pan. He covers topics that are both timely and relevant, yet stand the test of time. They're like a time capsule of emotion or a zeitgeist that never feels dated."

Related: How Tapping Emotional Hot Buttons Can Make Your Content Go Viral

James Percelay, the co-founder of viral video marketing firm Thinkmodo says that intelligence is an integral part of the show's success. Oliver never condescends to his audience, just like an effective campaign will never talk down to customers. Percelay says that transparency and clarity of message right from the start is key to keeping an audience's attention.

"He leads with a hook [and] states exactly in the first three seconds the premise of what his piece is," Percelay says, explaining that a refreshing perspective, social impact and real world context combined with humor is a winning combination. "[There is] no better way to communicate a serious subject than with something that's funny."

Nina Zipkin

Entrepreneur Staff

Staff Reporter. Covers media, tech, startups, culture and workplace trends.

Nina Zipkin is a staff reporter at She frequently covers media, tech, startups, culture and workplace trends.

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