Online marketers make fake ads look like real news – sometimes too successfully

More and more studies are showing that internet users do not engage with conventional online ads. Users have developed a type of blindness to the flashing, blinking, google-type ads that clutter pages, and no matter how invasive and annoying the ads are, we have learnt to ignore them.

So marketers are desperately searching for new ways to advertise to customers, one of which is the strategy of authenticity. This is when marketers create a video, or some other marketing piece, that looks real but has actually been carefully staged.

In most cases, the marketer lets the user in on the secret by telling them that the ad is fake, either directly or with hints. However, one marketer recently was so successful that he duped the entire internet into believing that his piece was real, to the embarrassment of almost everybody involved.

13 year olds steals Dad’s credit card to buy hookers – NOT!

A popular story ran on May 9, 2008 on about a 13 year old boy who stole his Dad’s credit card and ordered two hookers with it, only to be convicted of fraud and given a three year community order. This story was so popular, it reached the front page of Digg. It was also covered in other leading social media sites, as well as several online publications, resulting in 6,000 links to the article.

Well, it turns out the story was a fake. The writer, Lyndon Antcliff, says that he tried to make it as ludicrous as possible so its fakeness would be obvious. The story is indeed ludicrous; here are some excerpts:

  • The credit card company involved said it was regular practice to send extra credit cards out as long as all security questions are answered.
  • The escort girls who were released without charge, told the arresting officers something was up when the kids said they would rather play Xbox than get down to business.
  • Police said they were alerted to the motel by a concerned delivery clerk…delivering supplies of Dr Pepper, Fritos and Oreos
  • Ralph had reportedly told police that his father wouldn’t mind, as it was his birthday last week and he had forgot to get him a present. The father, a lawyer, said he had been too busy, but would take him on a surprise trip to Disneyland instead. [my bold]

The goal of the story was to get attention from social media sites, generate backlinks and increase rankings on search engines for keyword phrases like “Credit Card,” and draw in hundreds of thousands of visitors.

Now that we know it was fake, you can’t help but wonder how people bought the story. But anyone who follows the top stories on digg can tell you that this story is actually mild compared to some of the other true stuff posted there.

lonelygirl15 – the fake/real video blogger

This episode is similar to that of lonelygirl15, a series of video blogs by a 16 year old girl named Bree, that became extremely popular on YouTube. Bree even had a MySpace page:

At first, the videos covered normal, everyday subject matter, as the title character dealt with typical teenage angst (and the ridicule she received from her deformed cheekbones), but quickly morphed into a bizarre narrative that portrayed her dealings with secret occult practices within her family and included the mysterious disappearance of her parents after she refused to attend a “secret” ceremony prescribed by the leaders of the family’s cult. (from Wikipedia)

Fans began to wonder if Bree was real in August 2006, pointing to small inconsistencies within the videos as evidence that the story might not be genuine. Eventually it was revealed that the whole thing was staged.

Lying in advertising is not allowed – you cannot claim your product will do something that it cannot. The same should go for online reality advertising – ethical guidelines should be developed for “reality” marketing that ensure that users are informed that what they are viewing is not real.

But of course, what is real anymore? If France 2 TV can stage the al-Dura shooting and get away with it, then who’s to say what’s real and what’s not?

Here’s another example of “reality” marketing: