Things Are Not What They Stream

Have corporate-sponsored Internet pranks gone too far?

A shot from a Cardo Systems promotional video

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.)

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.

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?