Viral Ingredient: Is It Real?

Nico Brooks

April 12, 2010

Viral Ingredient: Is It Real?

This is one in a series of posts describing some the ingredients that cause media to go viral. I am presenting a variety of examples, but I am most interested in how local businesses can create viral media for marketing purposes. As you read this, think about ways you can leverage these ingredients to tell your story.

“Do you think his hair is real?”
“Did she really just do that?”
“Scientists at so-and-so university examined the photo and say it hasn’t been doctored.”

People love musing over things that may or may not be fake, and this is usually a very social activity. The is-it-real effect occurs when some form of content gets forwarded or posted with the question: is it real? Debate over such content is a very popular activity online. As I write this, countless online forums and comment threads are ablaze with discussion over some stunt or oddity.

Perhaps the greatest example of this phenomena as a marketing stunt was the remarkable saga of lonelygirl15. The ‘Catcher In the Rye’ of our time, for the summer of 2006 lonelygirl15 captured the hearts and minds of teens and sympathetic adults around the world with her brutally honest video journal. Or was it brutally honest? As the summer progressed, people started to suspect that this girl was just too perfect, and the events she described a little too engaging. But she just seemed so real! lonelygirl15 was outed in September of 2006 as a promotional stunt, and that’s when the publicity really began.

It turned out that lonelygirl15 was an actress, and her journal was the beginning of a series created by a then-unknown production company. Many people were upset by the deception, but the debate and subsequent outing created the publicity the producers were after. This points out a danger of using is-it-real as an ingredient. Assuming it isn’t real (it usually isn’t), people will eventually figure it out, which can create a negative backlash. This may be fine for a movie or other form of fictional entertainment, but most businesses don’t want customers feeling like they’ve been tricked. Nonetheless, it can be a quick way to get a lot of attention.

A somewhat tongue-in-cheek variant on this phenomenon is evidenced by the following clip promoting Microsoft in Germany. I don’t know if this is real or fake, but I do know the question has been widely discussed. Either way, Microsoft is pretty safe because it really has nothing to do with their products. This clip also demonstrates an key element of the is-it-real phenomenon: if you own a tripod, leave it at home. We continue to fall for the idea that people who don’t own tripods must be honest. One would have thought that the Blair Witch Project would have done away with this illusion, but low-fi production equipment continues to be a staple of internet fakery.

Another great example of is-it-real is the following Nike ad featuring soccer star Ronaldihno. After an unbearably long build-up watching him lace on his new Nike’s, he remarkably kicks the ball across the field and bounces it off the crossbar time after time. The clip generated a huge amount of debate, and seemed pretty much designed to get people asking the question. In one of many forums, bigsoccer.com members voted for or against. So far, 1,327 people say it’s real, while 1,602 disagree.

The best local-to-Colorado example of this effect was the unfortunate story of the boy and the weather balloon. Last fall the world turned their eyes on Colorado as news broke that a boy had accidentally drifted away on an experimental weather balloon. Water-cooler conversation quickly turned to the veracity of the story, given that the parents are known attention seekers. The boy was later found hiding in the garage, but not until after the National Guard had been called out and Denver International Airport had been shut down. It did later turn out that the boy was told to hide by his parents, and that the whole thing was a disgusting publicity stunt. Marketing doesn’t get any more abhorrent than that.

Please comment if you know of other good examples. For other posts in this series, click here.