In his 1896 book “In the South Seas”, Robert Louis Stevenson famously concluded that, “The picture of an event (on the old melodramatic principle that ‘the camera cannot lie, Joseph,’) would appear strong proof of its occurrence.” I wonder what Mr. Stevenson would make of the dancing Pepsi Next baby or the pronouncements of the E*TRADE stock-selling wunderkind.
In the last decade there has been a proliferation of images that can no longer be called approximations of actual events. Over the years, providers of visual media have struggled to earn the public’s trust and endow visual images with credibility. In today’s atmosphere of distorted video and slick computer animations, however, commercials and videos no longer need to caution “do not try this at home” because today’s audiences could never hope to re-create the physical world that digital technology offers up. Modern consumers are regularly bombarded with images that stretch the fabric of reality to the breaking point. Companies are eagerly lined up to channel new digital technologies that alter images to provide maximum excitement, increased entertainment value and higher impact.
But should they be?
There are many ways in which a corporation or individual can alter video: by adding or subtracting content; through the composition of several images into one; by depiction of events with audio or video that are created artificially; and through animations. Modern digital video producers have added another component to their well-stocked bag of tricks — the creation of video that appears amateur, but is really a well-thought-out commercial endeavor aimed at convincing consumers they are viewing a production of their peers.
While the Radio Television Digital News Association’s (RTDNA) Code of Ethics clearly states, “Professional electronic journalists should not manipulate images or sounds in any way that is misleading,” the Advertising Self-Regulatory Council (ASRC) doesn’t have a similar guideline. Should it? Should online advertisers be held to the same ethical standards as electronic journalists or can today’s production companies consider the sky the limit under the guise that advertising is an artistic endeavor?
An example of professionals posing as amateur, grass-roots consumers can be found in the grainy, home-shot look of a popular YouTube video, “Bike Hero,” that featured the popular “Guitar Hero” video game played with a BMX bike. The video was allegedly posted by “Kevin” from the demographically average town of Fort Wayne, Ind., complete with a comment from the poster that exclaimed, “Can’t believe how many times it took to make this work, but it was a lot!” While that statement may have been true in the technical sense, as no professional video is ever shot straight through on the first try, it leads you to believe that Kevin and his friends (called the Brierwood Vandals in the post) really struggled to create their homemade clip — that it was a true labor of love. In actuality, the piece was shot by the professional production team Droga5 in North Hollywood. When the video was discovered to be the brainchild of media giant Activision, the chief creative officer, Brad Jakeman, was queried about the deceptive nature of the clip. He was confident — arrogant even — in his response, saying, “It’s not meant to be deceptive. It’s meant to be fun.” He further argued that he and his team expected people to figure out that it was something “in the marketing realm” and that, in itself, would generate conversation. He was correct. The “Bike Hero” clip was the fifth most watched YouTube video in 2008.
In another work of corporate viral marketing, the “Amazing Ball Girl Catch” video appears to be a newsreel clip shot during a Triple-A baseball game between the Tacoma Rainiers and the Fresno Grizzlies. It captures the incredible catch of a foul drive by a ball girl who scales the outfield wall in spectacular, super-hero-like form to catch the ball.
This video was released to YouTube and garnered millions of views in an incredibly short time. While it seems like an authentic video news clip, it is, in fact, a commercial for the sports drink giant, Gatorade. If you look closely, you can see a bottle of the drink near the ball girl’s chair when she sits after the catch.
Purportedly, Gatorade sought out the advertising agency Element 79 to produce the clip and then shelved it, along with its relationship with the agency, shortly thereafter. They adamantly claim they never intended to use the video, yet somehow the clip was “leaked” to YouTube. Gatorade representative Jill Kinney remarks, “We were not planning to release the ball girl video, however, now that it’s out there, we’re thrilled with the response it’s getting.” Gatorade and Element 79 both deny having knowledge of who posted the clip.
The best part of the deal for Gatorade is the fact that they reaped double exposure from this “oops” moment: once when the clip first emerged and wowed viewers with its amazing content and again when people discovered the ruse and online conversation that ensued across social media channels. Sounds less like a mistake and more like a savvy marketing move, doesn’t it?
Companies hiding their credentials behind faux user-generated content are trying to capture the momentum being spawned by companies like Frito-Layand Chevrolet as they adopt true amateur content for their big television spots such as Super Bowl commercials. The strategy of using crowdsourced advertising comes in response to consumers’ affinity for products and services that they have been introduced to by word of mouth. Rated as the number one reason for buying a product in 20 to 50 percent of all purchases, word of mouth is a powerful marketing tool. Interestingly, the second most important factor in determining whether a consumer will make a purchase based on a word-of-mouth recommendation is the identity of the message sender. It must be a trusted source — ideally a user of the product or service. This is why the “Bike Hero” fake amateur video is so seductive. Players of “Guitar Hero” and similar games would definitely find trust in the “recommendation” of what appears to be an average guy enamored of the game enough to spend time making a video about it.
Joseph Turow, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication correctly points out that it is not easy to separate amateur from professional work. “Someone posting on message boards or blogs may be representing a company. Is that an amateur?” The answer is no. The problem is the same one posed by “Bike Hero,” “Amazing Ball Catch Girl” and similar videos: transparency.
So who benefits from this kind of deception? In an article titled, “You Didn’t Make the Harlem Shake Go Viral — Corporations Did,” MIT engineer and energy tech company owner Kevin Ashton shows how companies cashed in on “free” advertising based on the meme “the Harlem Shake” that went viral when some teenagers released their version of Albert Boyce’s drunken dance at Harlem’s Rucker Park basketball court. As the craze for Harlem Shake videos exploded, many of the imitations were not created by enterprising youths looking to express their creativity, but rather large enterprises like advertising agencies, the Miami Heat and Sports Illustrated. One of the most successful Harlem Shake knock-offs featured Time Warner-owned Maker Studios staff. Their promotion of the video through YouTube and Twitter channels led to record label owners, deejays and others further promoting it across social media. Who was the ultimate winner in this cascading marketing ploy? Google, of course, whose increasing YouTube views and ad revenue helped make investors like Fidelity, T. Rowe Price and JPMorgan Chase happy enough to want to do the Harlem Shake.
All of this visual sleight-of-hand smacks of a new kind of astroturfing. Astroturfing, for the uninitiated, is an insidious, relatively recent practice that gives a message the appearance of coming from a disinterested party when it is, in fact, created by an entity that is very much interested in the message’s reach: an advertiser, a corporation or even a political party. While the FTC requires the endorsements of reviewers or bloggers that create such messages in return for payment (either monetary or in-kind) to be disclosed, there is no disclosure yet required on adverts that merely give the appearance of being consumer-created.
Besides capitalizing on consumers’ attraction to home-grown video, savvy video marketers are busy creating advantages in other ways. Among notable emerging trends in video in the 21st century is the ability to more rapidly “engage, educate and entertain” for the purpose of selling an idea or product. To many, this means an increase in digital manipulation to the point of fantastical proportions, like that seen in the Pepsi Next and E*TRADE commercials.
So what’s the problem with a few talking babies? It depends on what the producer is trying to achieve through manipulation. If they’re just trying to enhance the creative nature of the video or amp up the entertainment value, then perhaps a little digital enhancement is not such a bad thing. After all, everyone knows the E*TRADE babies aren’t really discussing the finer points of stock trading. However, if a company sets out to portray a video as a truthful depiction of an event but uses manipulated images to “fool” the public, then there is a deeper, less ethical overtone.
Video holds special credibility with audiences, since it is recorded in real time and not just heard or photographed. Since the Christian Holy Bible first chronicled the parable of Doubting Thomas, we’ve lived by the mantra “Seeing is believing.” So do audiences really believe that the 8-month-old Pepsi baby is blissing out on an electric guitar? Probably not. The real issue is that digital technology allows advertisers to craft scenes that would be impossible to create in the real world. This technique extends beyond the realm of absurdly hyper-talented toddlers in ways that make the incredible, credible. Constant exposure to over-the-top scenes in some way dilutes our ability to perceive real from faux, and keeps us from skepticism in cases in which video producers are trying to deliberately mislead us.
Take J. Lo’s trip back to her humble Bronx beginnings in her commercial for the Fiat 500. While “Jenny from the Block” was filmed driving her subcompact Fiat around the streets of Los Angeles, a digital production studio was hired to make it seem like she was cruising through one of the poorest areas of New York City. Her voiceover purrs, “This is my world. This place inspires me. They may be just streets to you, but to me they’re a playground.” The New York street scenes J. Lo passes by have a gritty, down-to-earth vibe that fairly bursts with vibrant culture — an impression Fiat very much wants to convey. There’s the requisite boy drumming on overturned pails, some graffiti artists practicing their skills, casual hoops-playing and even some hip-hop and double-dutch jump rope moves thrown in for realism. The advertiser wants you to believe that with all her fame and fortune, Ms. Lopez still longs for, and returns to, the modest comforts of a lower-middle-class life. Sadly, the trip Fiat takes us on is a compilation of disparate scenes separated not just by socioeconomics, but miles and miles of countryside. Yet through the wonders of digital technology, Ms. Lopez didn’t have to leave the sunny streets of LA to convince us she’d returned to the Bronx for a little drive down Memory Lane. This distorted version dupes viewers into believing that Ms. Lopez risked her safety (or didn’t think it was unsafe) to return to her hometown that, in reality, is crime-ridden and less than idyllic. This little lie allowed the producer to associate the product, Fiat, with both success and humility at the same time — a powerful marketing mix.
And that’s all well and good — if only it were true.
Fiat owner Chrysler Group LLC acknowledged the undisclosed switch, but defended it by saying, “The commercial tells the story of how the simple elements of our upbringing can help explain who we are, where we’re going and serve as a source of inspiration to achieve our goals in life. One does not need to be in a specific location to be inspired or continue to be inspired.” While true, the entire premise of the Fiat commercial hinges on J. Lo’s implied love of her old neighborhood. A place which, as of this writing, she’s set foot in approximately one time since she shot to fame 26 years ago, and only after her phony commercial was exposed and vilified in the media.
Video producers, corporations and individuals should be held accountable for their productions. Transparency is the cornerstone to any truthful marketing campaign and the key to not only advertisers, but also media venues like Google, YouTube, Vine and Twitter being able to maintain a credible image with consumers. Entertaining videos can still achieve viral status even when they are released as part of a known marketing venture. After all, the popularity of the Super Bowl commercials confirms this every year.
A recent study tracking entertaining ads’ effectiveness on consumer buying habits showed, “Entertainment evoked before the consumer is aware of the brand being advertised slightly reduces purchase intent … Conversely, entertainment evoked after the consumer sees the brand increases purchase intent.” This strongly demonstrates that a little transparency of authorship might be a good thing for consumers and advertisers alike.
Ultimately, the ASRC should formulate regulations to define what constitutes truth-in-advertising for online video. Certainly, releasing professionally produced clips under the guise of amateur videos should not be considered ethical — lying never is. Online entities such as YouTube, Google and other social media should have strict guidelines and penalties for falsifying authorship and should work to encourage transparency across platforms. And while the Pepsi Next baby may just brighten your day (and get you to consider a Pepsi Next the next time you’re thirsty for soda), commercials like the J. Lo Fiat spot should be required to make full disclosure in a way similar to those commercials that post, in small print, “professional driver” when a suburban dad drives like Mario Andretti through the grocery store parking lot.
Nikki B. Williams is a freelance writer based in Houston, TX. She has written for a variety of clients from the Huffington Post and D.C.-based political action committees to Celtic jewelry designers in Ireland. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or through her website nikkibeewilliams.com.