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Fernando Motolese, a creator of viral videos, recently approached French food giant Danone (known as Dannon in the United States) with an unusual proposition. He had filmed a gross-out humor video about the gastrointestinal effects of Danone’s Activia yogurt, and he intended to release it on the Internet. Would Danone pay him a few pennies each time the video got viewed? If not, Motolese said, he might upload an even more offensive spoof.

“It felt sort of like blackmail,” says Renato Fischer, Danone account executive with the advertising firm Young & Rubicam, who fielded the offer. Even so, Fischer forwarded the proposal to Danone. Best to be friendly, he says: “This guy could do something, anytime and anywhere.”

Think of the 27-year-old Motolese as a guerrilla video producer who ambushes companies in the jungles of the Internet. His production company, Produlz.com, consists of a few computers and a sound room located on a graffiti-scarred street in São Paulo, Brazil. Yet Motolese presents a credible threat: he’s the creator or cocreator of video spoofs that have accumulated more than 17 million views on YouTube.

Motolese is part of a larger phenomenon rewriting the rules of advertising on the Web. Big brands used to simply beam messages through TV screens–it was a one-way communication channel. But now, anyone with a video camera and some talent has the chance to reach millions. And it turns out that many budding producers want to talk about brands–whether or not brands want them to.

While many videos posted online reinforce brand messages, others can prove damaging, especially if they’re made by angry customers or loose-cannon employees. One 2008 study estimated that spoofs and anti-marketing pieces accounted for 1 in 10 “advertisements” on YouTube. “Individuals now have more power and influence than at any time in history,” says Sage Lewis, founder of SageRock, a digital marketing agency in Akron, Ohio. “Anytime you allow the consumer to dictate your brand, you have a problem.”

It has also become easier to make money bashing companies online. Take the four-and-a-half-minute music video “United Breaks Guitars,” which went viral last year when a songwriter named David Carroll uploaded it to YouTube after the airline failed to reimburse him for the cost of repairing a guitar damaged by baggage handlers. The video now has more than nine million views, and Carroll, who’s based in Halifax, Nova Scotia, says it led to “the best year financially in my 20-year career” thanks to online album sales, gifts of equipment, and speaking gigs. Some estimates put the damage to United’s brand in the tens of millions.

The phenomenon can be frustrating for companies. While canned corporate videos go unnoticed, those featuring sick humor, sex, or critical messages often turn into media wildfires. “A fight always attracts a crowd,” notes Carroll, who says he carefully planned his video to maximize attention. Caroll’s viral revenge has since become the subject of academic studies on corporate damage control, including a Harvard Business School case study concluding that brands “are no longer in control of the message.”

The power of individuals to shape brand messages is only growing. YouTube now receives as many visitors each day as watch American Idol (about 17 million) and shows more than two billion videos every week, a 50 percent increase over the previous year. Including all sites, advertisers spent $1 billion on Internet video ads in 2009, according to PricewaterhouseCoopers.

Experts say video “brand-jacking” is easy when companies aren’t active online, since a weak video presence allows spoofs and critiques to rank high in search results. Although companies “are getting better at defending themselves,” Lewis says, it’s still the case that “almost anyone can upload a video and have it rank against a brand name.”

Unwanted viral messages carry significant economic hazards. Last year, when Domino’s Pizza faced down a shaky amateur video showing employees tampering with food in disgusting ways, spokesman Tim McIntyre called it “the challenge of the Web world.” He lamented that “any two idiots with a video camera and a dumb idea can damage the reputation of a 50-year-old brand.”

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Video by Antonio Regalado

Tagged: Business, Business Impact, digital marketing

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