She’s aired her own acceptance speech, been slammed by Jamie Lee Curtis, sparked a debate about plastic bottles and hijacked The Late Late Show – what a week it's been for the ‘Fiji Water Girl’, who has helped the brand generate more than a billion impressions across the likes of Twitter and Facebook.
Wearing a dress in the advertiser's distinct ocean blue hues, Toronto-based model Kelleth Cuthbert (AKA #FijiWaterGirl) became the viral breakout star of the Golden Globes on Sunday (6 January).
As ubiquitous as she was bold on the red carpet ahead of the prestigious annual awards ceremony, she could be seen in many of the glitzy pre-show shots, smiling into the camera and clasping a tray of Fiji water. The Bodyguard’s Richard Madden, Idris Elba, Kiki Lane and Curtis herself fell victim to her photobombing as she became both a source of mystery and a meme on social media, and grabbed the attention of the world press.
A throwback to Ellen's more meticulously planned Samsung Oscar selfie of 2014, the reaction showed the power of striking while the iron is hot and what can happen when advertisers weave themselves into pop culture moments.
But just what is the brand value in online virality?
Responding to questions from The Drum about how the brazen brand hijack came about, Clarence Chia, Fiji Water’s vice-president of marketing and e-commerce, gave a simple, on-brand explanation.
For more than a decade, Chia said, Fiji has “proudly maintained” a presence at high-profile A-list events such as the Globes, styling itself as the ‘official water’ of Hollywood's elite.
Just last month the advertiser sent two models to stand on the red carpet at Billboard’s Women in Music Event. It has been sponsoring backstage lounges at the likes of New York Fashion Week as far back as 2012.
At last year’s Golden Globes, the brand even partnered with the American Film Institute’s Directing Workshop for Women. Each time a celebrity posed on the red carpet with one of its signature bottles it donated $1,000 to the cause with the aim of raising $100,000.
Alluding to the Fiji's tagline Chia explained: “When we’re on the red carpet, our goal is to hydrate celebrities with ‘Earth’s Finest Water’ and garner as much exposure as possible.”
The strategy behind placing Cuthbert on the red carpet on Sunday wasn’t really any different, said the marketer: “At this year’s Golden Globes, our objective was the same, but with such compelling photos, the social media world took notice and ran with it.”
'We did have our own photographer'
It wasn't just a stroke of luck though: Fiji did hire a professional photographer to snap the images that wound up spawning the thousands of Water Girl memes. A closer look at the pictures being circulated will reveal most are credited to ‘Getty Images for Fiji Water’ or similar.
“Fiji Water does have our own photographer, but we don’t specifically tell our brand ambassadors to look at the camera, we just tell them to be themselves,” admitted Chia, adding: “[Cuthbert] is such a natural in front of the camera, the photos took off.”
While he said it was “too soon to tell exactly” whether the promotion has resulted in any immediate sales or commercial uptick for Fiji, he did reveal it has already helped the brand surpass 1bn social media impressions.
Chia said his team was “thrilled” when Fiji Water Girl became a viral sensation: “This certainly exceeded our expectations"
Even Cuthbert, a model who has previously featured in commercials, PSAs and short films, didn’t quite realise the lofty heights of Internet stardom she’d reached until she took a break from the red carpet to read the “hundreds” of messages and DMs on her phone.
"I called my mom on my break, and she was already laughing when she picked up the phone. My parents are not very hip to things going on, so the fact that they had already received this information says a lot about how viral it already went,” she told Glamour.
Like Chia, Cuthbert has denied a report from The Cut claiming she said the stunt was calculated, explaining to Glamour “I never said that. I just stand where I’m told.”
“Everyone has their work or event persona," she explained. "You try to look at least somewhat pleasant and not have too much resting bitch face. You have to look somewhat friendly and happy to be engaging with people."
Like Chia, she claimed the photobombing element was unintentional, putting it down to the many angles and different cameras present on the red carpet.
She clarified: “I feel like I was looking away, but sometimes I was looking so I could move out of the way.”
Not everyone was a fan
While social media might have crowned her the real winner of the evening (sorry Olivia Colman and Sandra Oh), some big hitters weren’t as enamoured by her branded presence. Halloween actress Jamie Lee Curtis was among those who failed to see the funny side.
“I specifically moved away from the blatant promotions by Fiji and Moet [sic] where young women with their trays filled with their wares stood near a designated camera,” she wrote on Instagram underneath a photo of her featuring [Cuthbert] in the background.
“I knew why there was a photographer poised there and I moved away as I said out loud that I didn’t want to be doing advertising for either. Clearly this angle shows that I moved from her being behind me and yet from the side it still happens. The sponsors of events need to get permission from people when they get them to take their picture next to products.”
Whatever you think of Water Girl, you can't deny that she solidified her place in the 2019 meme hall of fame less than one week into the new year and helped Fiji stoke some brand love in the process.
Cuthbert's favourite meme of them all? The one that proclaims "dress for the job you want, not the job you have", indicating that we've not quite seen the last of Water Girl yet.