Yet some of the most damaging viral videos to hit the Net have been professional jobs. Remember that fake Volkswagen ad featuring a suicide bombing? Or the 2009 Sprite advertisement that revolved around interracial oral sex? Both were made “on spec” by creative agencies looking to drum up business–and they were so slick that consumers couldn’t be sure they were fakes.
“We did everything we could to make people believe they were real ads without ever actually claiming to have made real ads,” says filmmaker Max Isaacson, who created the humorous Sprite spot to “see how the world would react.” The results surprised even him. After the video ran up 1.5 million views in three days, Isaacson sought to remove it from the Web and issued a public apology to Coca-Cola. He says the experience made him “very cautious about what kind of content I’m creating.”
In São Paulo, Motolese takes a different view: he thinks guerrilla video spoofs are good business. Scanning Twitter for hot topics, he tries to quickly produce videos with punchy music to exploit whatever today’s fad is. And he’s not afraid to go after brands. “Today criticism of products and advertising can be monetized,” he says. “That is definitely part of my business plan.”
So far, his profits are modest. A multimedia campaign targeting phone companies pulls in a few hundred dollars a month through Telephone Freedom, a website that runs ads for low-cost VOIP services. But Motolese has big ambitions. This summer, he played a role in an international cyber prank in which tens of thousands of U.S. Twitter users were tricked into supporting a campaign to save the endangered Galvão bird. Except there is no Galvão bird. It was all a hoax, and now a video by Motolese that fueled the craze was nominated for an MTV Video Award in Brazil.
All this just brings the Brazilian prankster closer to his dreams. “I know what I want in life, says Motolese. “I want to be famous. I want to be a millionaire.”
For brands, such yearnings represent an asymmetrical threat. How can you stay a step ahead of thousands, maybe millions, of would-be video stars living who-knows-where? One approach is to join the fray. This year, Old Spice launched self-parodying ads featuring a bedroom-voiced pitchman touting its toiletries. Then the campaign went viral when “Old Spice Guy,” wearing only a towel, began posting video responses to individual fans and critics on the Internet. The spots have been played more than 142 million times on YouTube, and sales of the company’s body wash have leapt by more than 50 percent.
Some brands are even testing the tricky business of spoofing rivals. Consider a recent hoax advertisement for “cheeseburger smoothies.” The Internet ad, which kept consumers guessing whether it was real, was created by fruit-drink retailer Jamba Juice after McDonald’s launched a competing line of smoothies in July.
That video, with nearly 400,000 views, didn’t go viral by accident. C. J. Bruce, CEO of Video Army, a viral-video marketing agency in Venice, California, says he was hired to make sure the spot got attention; he paid to have it prominently placed on comedy websites. Bruce calls the campaign a “creative way to attack certain fast-food chains” but says that most companies aren’t yet ready to criticize each other, or even to respond to online critics. “Large companies are slow to grab these ideas,” he says. “They tend to want to focus on their own message.”
In the end, Danone also decided to stick to its own marketing plan and declined to pay for Motolese’s Activia video. Despite the attempt at viral-video blackmail, Y&R’s Fischer says he doesn’t think Motolese is a bad person. “The real villain in this story is the Internet,” Fischer says, “because you don’t have control anymore.”