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.”
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.”