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When Fans Attack: Marketing missteps

Yesterday I looked at the way marketers have been exploring both interactive tools and user-generated content sites in order to create broad multimedia campaigns.  The couple examples from TV and publishing showed advertisers/marketers creating fake companies, or websites, or aggressively using User-Generated-Content (YouTube etc) sites to hype and promote their products.   There are a multitude of other examples from Film, Television and other products; even luxury car brands like Audi are not immune.   Anheuser-Busch is getting in to the arena too. BudTV, which launched after the Super Bowl, provides several channels of Net TV video content created to help promote Budweiser for user who register to use the site.

The efforts to plug in to the viral marketing benefits of user-generated-content and willingness to embrace new technologies are notable.  Ultimately, I think they help legitimize the technology platforms as much, if not more, than they help promote products. But hijacking sites like YouTube, or MySpace, for advertising purposes (and creating hoax content) borders on problematic.  Today’s focus is those problems:

There is a fine line between content that is entertaining or engaging to fans versus content that irritates potential viewers/customers with misleading information.  Consumers are constantly inundated with marketing materials and have grown sensitive to the tone and nature of what’s directed at them.  A small misstep could significantly harm a campaign, or taint a potential fan/customers reaction.  Marketers needs to ask themselves if their efforts are clearly fun and entertainment, or more likely to be viewed as misleading. 

In 2004, Sci Fi Channel demonstrated what not to do with an effort that was clearly misleading. The GE owned network publicized a rift and falling out with film director M. Night Shyamalan over a supposed unauthorized biography they had produced and planned to air.  In reality, there was no falling out, nor biopic movie.  The story was a hoax to help promote the TV premier of Shymalan’s The Village.  Sci Fi Network President Bonnie Hammer apologized for the hoax.

In December, 2006, Sony also faltered with its efforts to promote the PSP gaming platform.  Through marketing firm Zipatoni, Sony created a fake fan website.  The site purported that it was it was created by real fans, kids no less, and was titled “all I want for Christmas is a PSP.”   Though to skeptics, the site was clearly a marketing effort, it pretended to be real.   Among other content on it, there was home made video and song enhancing the theme.  That video was placed on YouTube, and fake posts on various web sites helped drive traffic to it and increase its page rank.  The Whois information about the website revealed the relationship to savvy fans who wanted to know for sure.  Once that news got out, there was a lot of negative publicity for Sony.  There was even a YouTube video made by fans to tell Sony that gamers were more sophisticated than Sony was treating them. 

Hoaxes and frauds for marketing aren’t new.  Curious readers can go back to  1938 and read headlines following Orson Welles radio broadcast of War of the Worlds to see a classic, famous case. New media technologies are just giving marketers more outlets and tools than they’ve had before.

The old adage – there is no such thing as bad publicity – might apply to celebrities and individuals (more often than not) but it doesn’t apply to products and the companies selling them.   Here’s to hoping future efforts learn from Sony and Sci Fi’s mistakes; that they focus on entertainment and interactivity, not misrepresentation.

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