The Rise of “Fake” Viral Videos

ID-10079637Stuart Miles

Every marketing department or digital marketing agency dreams of hitting it big with a viral video that is not only popular, but also benefits their brand in some way. There’s nothing wrong with a branded viral video. Pepsi MAX & Kyrie Irving Present: “Uncle Drew” is one example of a branded video done right; it takes a genuinely entertaining concept – NBA player Kyrie Irving dresses up like an old man and plays in a pickup game in New Jersey – and dabbles in a minimal amount of product placement (there are a couple shots of onlookers, probably placed there by Pepsi, drinking Pepsi MAX). Unfortunately, many brands are attempting to hide their involvement in viral videos by making it seem like the video was created by ordinary individuals.

You may be surprised about the amount of brands that have tried to “fake” a viral video. Are You My Man in the Jacket? is an infamous example. In the video, a woman pretends that she met a guy at a café who left his jacket behind. Now she wants to track down that man and give him back his jacket, which she praises in great detail. According to Australian newspaper The Age, both the actress and members of the creative agency involved in creating the video for an Australian retail company first denied claims that the event was fabricated.

Digital marketers are tip-toeing a fine line between creative and deceptive advertising. Television, radio and print advertising have very clear rules and regulations about what constitutes deceptive advertising, but the online space is less regulated. For example, Nissan’s TV commercial that showcases its Frontier truck “ski” down a mountain has disclaimer text that reads “Fantasy. Trucks do not snowboard. Do not attempt.”  No matter how absurd a video might seem to you (take Kobe Bryant jumping over an Aston Martin to promote his new Hyperdunk shoes), there are bound to be people who are fooled.

According to the New York Times, Thinkmodo, a viral social media marketing company that created an unbranded YouTube account and uploaded a fake viral video about hacking into video screens in Times Square to promote the movie Limitless, will “tip off editors of target Web sites, buy keywords and Web site addresses and use social media to get the word out without being obvious.” Michael Krivicka, one of the founders, says, “It has to be finessed in a certain way.”

I don’t know about you, but that is exactly the type of behavior that should not be tolerated in digital advertising. I get it – it’s creative and generates an enormous amount of buzz – but the last time I checked, marketers are not supposed to falsify information and situations, or play your audience as suckers. My friends and I tried the Diet Coke + Mentos experiment in high school after watching that video. Imagine if the guys who made it revealed tomorrow that they were paid by Coke, or Mentos, or a digital agency, to star in it.

Digital marketers need to own their creations. The internet may be a cynical and skeptical place, but it can be very receptive to branded video campaigns (see Old Spice). Their strategy around creating viral video buzz should not revolve around deceiving viewers.

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