Have corporate-sponsored Internet pranks gone too far?

Innovation, the Internet, gadgets, and more.
July 21 2008 7:05 PM

Things Are Not What They Stream

Have corporate-sponsored Internet pranks gone too far?

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More sophisticated viral ads turn their deception into a kind of interactive game, planting subtle clues pointing to their corporate source. In May, Levi's posted "Guys backflip into jeans," a nearly two-minute-long video showing young men doing a series of increasingly more difficult acrobatic jumps into pairs of jeans. Nowhere in the video is Levi's mentioned, but the guys do note, several times, that their jeans are button-fly (like Levi's 501s). The film had also been posted under a YouTube user account called "unbuttonedfilms." Within three days of the ad's appearance, Gawker fingered Levi's as the source.

Gawker's report only played into Levi's campaign, says Robert Cameron, the company's vice president of marketing. What marketers call "the reveal"—the manner in which the ad is discovered to be a fake—is a key moment in a viral spot's life cycle. Of the 4 million people who watched the back-flipping jeans ad, there were many who never associated the ad with Levi's. But for people who did understand the ruse, the mystery worked in Levi's favor. "The fact that some people don't know that we're behind it makes the people who do know have some knowledge that makes them feel cool," Cameron says.

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The Levi's and Nike spots might hurt you if you try to imitate the crazy stunts they portray; otherwise, their deception is largely harmless. (Bryant does warn people not to try to jump over an Aston Martin at home.) The Cardo ad is another story. Health concerns may push many people to buy Bluetooth headsets, but the research connecting cell phones to brain tumors is unclear, and Cardo would face an outcry—not to mention possible legal or regulatory action—if it straightforwardly marketed its products as being "safer" for you.

This speaks to the dark magic of a secret ad: It allowed Cardo to feed those fears without taking responsibility for them. In addition, the ads boosted Cardo's brand: Kathryn Rhodes, the company's marketing director, told me that sales and traffic to its Web site soared after the firm revealed that it was behind the videos.

And when confronted with the idea that it lied to people, the company can point to the medium as an excuse. Because the spot debuted on YouTube, "we were relying on the fact that people would know it was obviously humorous and fictitious," Rhodes says. In other words, what fool would believe anything he saw online?

True. But what fool should buy from a company that takes its customers for fools?

Farhad Manjoo is a technology columnist for the New York Times and the author of True Enough.

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