Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Hoaxes have a proud tradition

So have you heard about the bride who cut off her hair on her wedding day, freaked out, then posted the whole episode to YouTube?

Or what about the Boston bomb scare that resulted from a failed (?) attempt at guerilla marketing for a TV cartoon? (Some argue that paying a $2 million fine for that kind of publicity is cheap!)

These stories have been all over the media in the past week, so I’m assuming that you know the background. If you don’t, you can follow the links above or do a Google search to find out more.

What’s interesting to me is the way the stories have played out in the mass media.

Journalists seem to be falling over themselves to cast the “perpetrators” as the bad guys and are suggesting that what they are doing is a bad thing, or at least something that we should be wary of.

But are they? And should we be? Wary of them, I mean?

It seems to me that most marketing campaigns (and here I’m using “Marketing” as opposed to “PR”, although I’m not sure that the distinction means much to anyone) are built around the idea of trying to get us to accept some premise which might be doubtful, at best, or an outright lie (at worst) and then adjust our behaviour accordingly.

For example, if I see a bunch of young, dynamic people having fun while drinking beer, I’ll naturally want to buy and drink the same brand of beer to have the same experience.

Or if a well-known actor tells me that her skin stays soft because she’s using a particular face cream, shouldn’t I believe her? After all, why would she lie? Just because she’s paid money to do so? Is she lying?

Last weekend, we went through the annual spectacle of the Super Bowl ads, where people willingly sat down and watched some very creative visions of reality which are trying to influence their buying decisions. Companies spent millions of dollars to get their ads in front of as many people as possible.

But I didn’t hear anyone complaining about a company pretending that apes can talk and plot to ambush a Bud Lite delivery guy. So how come people are so upset at a video that purports to portray a bride that cuts her hair off?

I wonder if people are more offended by the fact that a company pulled off a stunt like that, or by the fact that they were taken in?

Marketing hoaxes are certainly nothing new.

Consider the “Paul is dead” affair from 1969, when Paul McArtney supposedly died, and the album Abbey Road became a roadmap to his death. It’s quite a tale, (here’s a link to a Wikipedia article about it) and some suggest it was an elaborate hoax perpetrated to sell more records.

Or, more recently, there's the tale of Platinum Weird, a real music group but with a fictional prior existence that’s been documented in print and a television documentary. It’s an interesting story and also involved “taking in” the mass media.

More sinister examples of hoaxes (and the outcry that surrounds them when they’re exposed) include The Bush administration’s claims that Iraq had plenty of WMD’s (Weapons of Mass Destruction) and that Saddam Hussein was planning to buy uranium from Niger.

When I look at the stuff that fills the airwaves and newspapers these days (and is considered legitimate) I can’t get excited when someone manages to sneak something by us. It’s kind of cool, actually.

OK, I admit that the problems in Boston were unfortunate, but isn’t it interesting to consider that in the other nine or 10 cities that the same gag was done, it passed without incident? Perhaps it’s not the marketing people that should be investigated, but the ones who are supposed to be protecting us.

YouTube was created to help liberate messages and ideas. Ordinary people can post their videos and people all over the world can see them instantly - without filters or payment or censors.

If the price of that freedom is the occasional campaign that isn’t actually what it appears to be, that’s OK with me. They’re often the most interesting.

I think we need to get a grip.

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