Late in May, a public-relations company based in Paris created some user accounts on YouTube and posted four short videos. The clips had been produced by a professional advertising studio to look thoroughly homemade–shaky camera, unscripted-sounding dialogue, no corporate logos or overt marketing pitches. In each one, several young friends gather around a table and aim the antennas of their cell phones at a few kernels of popcorn. The kids dial the phones, and when they ring, the popcorn begins to pop. The friends—in different versions, they're American, Japanese, French, and English —explode into shock and laughter, and just then the videos cut off.
The clips were an instant hit. Within two weeks, they'd been seen 10 million times. Fear was a primary motivation: Many viewers took the videos as evidence supporting long-standing concerns over the health dangers posed by cell-phone radiation. If phones do that to popcorn, imagine what they do to your brain! But on June 12, a wireless headset manufacturer called Cardo Systems announced that it had commissioned the videos (and added the pop-up ads you now see on the clips). Special effects, not cell phones, had popped the popcorn. CEO Abraham Glezerman told CNN that the company had never meant to scare people into buying more headsets—which some neurosurgeons recommend to reduce exposure to cell-phone radiation. Rather, Cardo just wanted to convince viewers to send the clips to their friends. He insisted, "The truth is that it was funny!"
Ha, ha, ha. These days the Web brims with opportunities for such chuckles. "Stealth viral" video ads—i.e., clips that betray few obvious signs that they're part of a campaign—have invaded the Internet. You may think you've just seen a ball girl at a minor-league baseball game scale a wall to catch a foul. Wrong: She's a stunt woman, and that's a Gatorade ad. Did you recently send your friends that kick-ass security-cam clip of an office worker going berserk? If so, you took part in director Timur Bekmambetov's bizarre stealth advertisement for his film Wanted. Ray-Ban, Levi's, Nike, and other brands have also recently launched similar campaigns.
The viral epidemic isn't necessarily a terrible thing; some spots, like those from Nike and Levi's, are actually pretty creative and entertaining, at least compared with most other online ads. But Cardo's commercials point to the ugly side of what Rob Walker calls "murketing," the obscure form of persuasion that has been on the rise in the ad business in the last couple of decades. The cell-phone popcorn ads peddle false consumer-safety information in an attempt to trick people into buying Cardo's wares. And the medium lets Cardo off the hook for this deception—when called on it, the company can laugh off the whole thing as the kind of mischief that's de rigueur on the Internet.
The problem isn't just that Cardo is lying—it's the nature of the lies. After all, most viral ads depend on some measure of misinformation. On the Web, customers aren't immediately put off by the possibility that they're being duped, says Josh Warner, the president of Feed, a company that helps "seed" marketing videos by talking them up to bloggers. The mystery surrounding a video's authenticity pushes folks to share it with their friends.
The most popular ads feature scenes that aren't obviously impossible, just nearly so, leaving the is-it-real debate raging on blogs and comment threads. In a Nike spot seen more than 3 million times, Kobe Bryant appears to jump over a speeding Aston Martin. As many YouTube viewers point out, it's at least conceivable that he could do so, isn't it? Maybe, but come on, Kobe would never do that. It must be a trick—after all, look at all the suburban white kids who can do the same thing. (I called Nike to ask if Kobe really jumped but got no reply; in a TV interview, he seemed to admit it's fake.)