Viral Video Hits Blur the Authenticity Line

NEW YORK The video uploaded by “madflux” in mid-November begins with a fumbled camera. What follows is nearly unreal: a video of a guy on a bike re-creating the experience of the video game Guitar Hero by following markers set on the pavement of a suburban neighborhood. Madflux gives a “shoutout” to “Lars and the rest of the Brierwood Vandals.” “Bike Hero” immediately became a YouTube hit, garnering over 1.7 million views, along with hundreds of thousands elsewhere online.

Soon, it emerged the video actually was unreal. It was constructed with the help of computer graphics by independent shop Droga5 on behalf of Guitar Hero maker Activision, which saw the video as a way to connect with its audience and promo the release of the new version. The buzz it generated was substantial on gaming blogs, YouTube and elsewhere.

“We didn’t want to be deceptive,” said Brad Jakeman, chief creative officer at Activision. “It was a more positive reaction than traditional advertising elicits among consumers these days.”

At a time when “authenticity” is an overused marketing buzzword, consumers paradoxically seem increasingly comfortable with advertisers creating smart, entertaining content that playfully stretches the truth. Brands like Nike, Gatorade and Levi’s have found success imitating the YouTube style of amateur filmmaking, while adding in the “is it real?” twist that taps into the site’s combative comment culture. The advantages of this approach: unbranded videos typically fare better than run-of-the-mill TV commercials. The back-and-forth over authenticity fuels interest, particularly among media-savvy young consumers steeped in gaming culture.

“They know when something is real and not real,” said Doug Sweeney, director of brand marketing at Levi’s, which saw its Cutwater-created videos of men seemingly jumping into jeans go viral. “They are much more savvy than we give them credit for.”

To be sure, there continues to be a fine line between fooling with consumers and simply fooling them. Like much in viral marketing, it remains unclear how much an advertiser should reveal during campaigns.

Unilever’s Sunsilk, for instance, backed away from a viral campaign this summer that purported to show a crazed bride chopping off her hair on her wedding day. “Bike Hero” elicited some negative feedback of its own. “What’s up, viral marketing douchebags?” Freddie Wong begins in a reply video on YouTube before showing himself actually playing the game while riding a bike. Gaming blog Kotaku and others also decried the marketing push.

“It was awesome only because we thought there were creative kids doing this in their free time,” noted a commenter on game blog GameCyte. “Now, it’s just a good commercial.”

The Activision approach is hardly revolutionary. Droga5 pulled off a similar trick in 2006 for Marc Ecko. The “Still Free” video seemingly showing Air Force One “tagged” with the designer’s mantra made the rounds online and generated enough buzz that the brand asserts the Pentagon had to deny the incident took place. (The video garnered Droga5 a Grand Prix at Cannes.) Indeed, the first runaway advertiser video hit on YouTube was “Touch of Gold,” a Nike-produced video purporting to show Brazilian soccer star Ronaldinho repeatedly kicking a ball off the crossbar from over 100 feet away. Nike ignited a small “is-it-real?” controversy with an April video of Kobe Bryant supposedly jumping over a car to dunk a basketball. Over 2,300 comments were tallied with 1.4 million YouTube views.

“If you’re not provoking conversation or giving people a reason to forward it,” said Renny Gleeson, global director of digital strategies at Wieden + Kennedy, “what’s the point?”

“Bike Hero” certainly ignited discussion. Several top gaming blogs and sites picked up on the video, which has drawn over 7,500 comments. All that conversation and exposure came without media spending. “The economics present themselves and they’re very appealing,” Activision’s Jakeman said.

Those savings have encouraged many brands to try their hand at creating viral hits. Of course, the influx of advertiser videos on YouTube has led even legitimate videos to gain legions of doubters. A recent video of a British man named Stuart Tanner embarrassing Nets star Devin Harris in a pick-up basketball game drew over 4.3 million views on YouTube — and a chorus of accusations that it’s a viral marketing scheme for Adidas.

Dennis Ryan, chief creative officer at Element 79, the Chicago shop, predicts the trend toward playfully hiding the origin of the video will go in the wrong direction. Already brands pay seeding firms to goose video views, even to the point of adding comments, said Ryan. “You’re not disclosing how hard you’re advocating for something,” he said. “That can get a bit weird.”

The approach is unlikely to end soon as advertisers such as Activision see major brand benefits from the videos. The old push model is passé, particularly among young consumer bases.

In order to compete with all the entertainment offerings out there, advertisers need to use all the tools at their disposal. The power of the Web is its discovery function rather than simple passive content consumption. This rings true especially for Activision’s core demographic of males in their teens and early 20s, Jakeman said.

“If you look at how people responded to it and the numbers, you’re starting to see that our brand is becoming well-immersed in popular culture,” he said.