Clients Dive Into CGC, But Not Without Risks

The videos were typical YouTube fare: a handheld digital camera, bad lighting and a goofy subject matter. They featured “Dave B.,” a bored office worker, doing seemingly amazing tricks with a rolled up wad of paper as a soccer ball. Thanks to his “fingerskilz,” chronicled on a blog (www.fingerskilz.tv) and seeded on video-sharing sites, Dave B. attracted more than 230,000 viewers.

There’s just one catch: Dave B. was not a random cubicle dweller with too much time on his hands and freakish dexterity. He is an actor, hired by Interpublic’s McCann Worldgroup, to appear in the video as part of a viral blitz to launch Hewlett-Packard’s “The computer is personal again” campaign. The strategy, according to David Roman, vp of marketing communcation, was to make HP more relevant to young consumers.

“This is a market that is less obviously served by traditional advertising,” he said.

On YouTube—which now streams 100 million videos a day—clips of toilet-trained cats, lip-synching kids and skateboard tricks far outpace professionally produced Web programming on other video services. The HP effort is a sign of how far advertisers will go to tap into the groundswell of consumer-generated content in an attempt to build viral appeal.

But with these efforts comes the question of whether consumers are willing to embrace a corporate ad message dressed up as clever videos by regular Joes? Does it intrigue viewers or make them feel scammed?

Such tactics could backfire, warned JupiterResearch analyst Nate Elliott, if consumers feel they are being deceived into participating in a marketing push. He points to the popularity of spots like Sony’s “Bravia” and Volkswagen’s “Unpimp My Ride” on YouTube. “If you create great content, people will pass it around, even if it has a brand on it,” he said.

The decision not to brand the HP effort was made to avoid the appearance of the client trying too hard, said Alastair Duncan, CEO of MRM Worldwide in London, who consulted for McCann Worldgroup on the project. An HP-branded effort, he said, would be “like your dad dancing at a disco. It’s more embarrassing than cool.”

So, some advertisers try to toe the line between deceiving users into passing around their messages and surprising them with clever campaigns to ignite buzz.

That was the approach used in Publicis Groupe-backed Droga5’s Cannes Cyber Grand Prix winning entry for Marc Ecko—a film that appeared to be an Ecko-led group of saboteurs spray-painting his “Still Free” mantra on Air Force One. It was believable enough to spread like wildfire around the blogosphere, eliciting news reports and Pentagon denials. David Droga, creative chairman of Droga5, said the video was filmed with care to appear amateurish, even to the point of running too long. “We very deliberately shot it for as much authenticity as possible,” he said.

Other virals have tried to play into this hint of the illicit. Coka-Cola undertook a viral campaign this summer for the World Cup that featured English soccer star Wayne Rooney. The video shows Rooney during a break in filming a Coke commercial kicking a can around the set. Shot from behind the crew with a jostling handheld camera, the video has the appearance that it was captured spontaneously during a break in shooting, even though AKQA plotted out the shots beforehand. “As soon as you bring that sort of intrigue into it, you get it passed it around,” said James Hilton, global creative director at AKQA, which shot the video.

That intrigue can also include leaving clues that brands are behind the videos. In HP’s case, McCann left hints—an HP computer in the background, a banner ad on the blog—the videos were actually ad messages.

And like “Still Free,” Dave B.’s tricks were not what they appeared: McCann used a computer graphics program to insert the paper soccer ball. A scan of sites linking to fingerskilz shows few blogs that wrote about it picked up the clues, seeming to believe the blog and tricks were real; however, several commenters pointed out that the ball tricks were done through computer graphics.

Hilton believes that, while consumers don’t like being deceived about something like product benefits, “they want to be played with.”

“There’s a difference between being mischievous and lying to someone,” he said.

Droga noted that “Still Free” tapped into Ecko’s subversive roots by creating a piece that fooled the media and caused the Pentagon to comment. “I think people appreciated that a brand had enough courage to do that,” he said.

Anecdotally, Duncan said McCann has not observed any backlash following the revelation that HP was behind the viral effort. “The fact that it was brought to you by HP was fine,” he said, terming the decision to make the videos appear consumer-generated “a fair risk.”

Another risk is advertisers trying too hard to please consumers by copying them badly, said Collen DeCourcy, chief experience officer at WPP Group’s JWT Worldwide. She cites videos Pepsi created with the Backdorm Boys, the Chinese teenagers who became YouTube sensations with their lip-synched rendition of the Backstreet Boys. “We’ve always co-opted culture,” she said. “But when we just repurpose a phenomenon, is it interesting the second time around?”

Still, advertisers are likely to continue to take the plunge. The appeal of viral is its potentially wide reach for a low cost. Droga estimates “Still Free” reached 115 million people. Fingerskilz’s blog with the videos received 6.3 million visits during a five-week run, according to McCann. Thanks to coverage of the video on ITN before the World Cup, AKQA estimates 5 million people saw the Rooney clip.