Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Sure it's fake, but...

There's an intiguing article in Slate on viral video, particularly of the unbranded or so-called stealth variety, by Farhad Manjoo. The occasion of the article is a series of short viral videos for a headset manufacturer. The videos portrayed a bunch of phones pointed at popcorn kernels. Kids dial the phones and when they ring, the popcorn begins to pop. (If you want to check it out, all the links are in the Slate article, which I'm too lazy to reproduce here). Apparently they were viewed 10 million times in two weeks.

Manjoo takes a balanced approach to a whole phenomenon, placing this video in the context of other unbranded--or initially unbranded--videos for Gatorade, Ray-Ban and Nike. He doesn't deny that the web is full of videos of dubious authenticity. And advertisers are far from the only source of misleading information. And he acknowledges--or at least quotes other experts on the fact--that figuring out whether the video is accurate or not is part of fun.

"The most populat ads feature scenes that aren't obviously impossible, just nearly so, leaving the is-it-real debate raging on blogs and comment threads....More sophisticated viral ads turn their deception into a kind of intereactive game, planting subtle clues pointing to their corporate source."
But Manjoo draws the line on consumer health and safety. And he thinks Cardo stepped over it. Beyond just mocking up near-impossible stunts, Manjoo believes that Cardo fed off of consumer fears, playing to unsubstantiated claims linking cellphone radiation with brain damage without needing to take responsibility for them. Here's how he puts it:
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.
If Manjoo's point is that web video should be subject to the same regulatory strictures as all other advertising, he's certainly right, and such desire regulation is bound to get tighter. If, however, he wants to ban all advertising from insinuating health risks or benefits, he's got a long crusade ahead of him. The entire anti-bacterial category is built on equally deceptive information. (It's not that alcohol infused gels don't kill germs; but so does soap. It's not that dust in the air doesn't make you sneeze, but it's not very clear it makes you sick.)

Equally interesting are the comments on the article, which provide a wonderful representative sampling of responses to almost any article on advertising: There are the readers that want to debate the facts: could Kobe could really jump the sports car or not? There's the self-proclaimed non-TV-raised-Gen-Y'er who expresses his genuine fear over "where advertising will go next." And there there is the reader (referencing great-depression era hardship) who tells him to stop whining. There's a reader who simultaneously denies and affirms the power of advertising: "the more I am marketed to, the less I want to buy. That said I like a cute film every now and then for amusement...." And there's the reader who advances his or her own observation on the "irony" of an advertising technique which is designed to speak to jaded audiences but only succeeds in making them more jaded.

But it's MountainManZach who provides the title for this post. He cites a subtitle on collegehumor.com that accompanied the cell-phone video that might stand as a motto for advertising itself: a brilliantly concise insight into the psychology of consumer reception.
"Sure, it's fake, but what if it's real?"
It's why I found Manjoo's closing line-- "But what fools should buy from a company that takes its customers for fools"--so unsatisfying. After such a balanced and insightful account of this emerging marketing practice, Manjoo retreats to a familiar and inaccurate fantasy that companies and ad-men are sitting around thinking of ways to gull all the suckers out there. It's inaccurate for the simple reason that knowledge has nothing to do with how advertising works. We know you know and that you'll still act as if you don't.

"Sure, it's fake, but what if it's real?"

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