The goal of most advertisers is, frankly, to bypass your rational brain and reach down into the murky depths of your limbic system to control your desires. And the Web has given advertisers powerful new mind-control tools, allowing them to generate fake "buzz" for products by implanting references to, say, Hewlett Packard on YouTube or Cisco on Wikipedia. The idea is to make people think that their "friends" online like a product and artificially jumpstart a word-of-mouth recommendation for the product. At a South by Southwest panel Friday about the worst viral media advertising, several marketers and critics gathered to discuss the most heinous and failed examples of ads that are turning our mediascape into a William Gibson or Philip K. Dick nightmare. Two ad campaigns stood out as the worst.
Hewlett Packard used a service called PayPerPost to pay bloggers to create posts or viral videos to promote Hewlett Packard's new digital camera. One woman had her children smash a Fuji camera with a hammer, filmed it, and put it on YouTube. The video didn't actually catch on virally, but did represent a strange and disturbing new phase in the evolution of advertising. A woman who clearly just wanted to feed her kids actually used her kids in a specious ad campaign in order to earn cash. This isn't the only time companies have tried this kind of stunt — paying bloggers a pittance to develop advertising for rich advertising firms — and it's bound to become more popular as more people get their entertainment via places like YouTube. In fact, Hewlett Packard had a much more successful viral ad campaign two years ago, in which people playing "finger soccer" on their desks at work and uploading the vids to YouTube were eventually outed as part of an ad campaign to make HP seem as cool and fun as Apple. By the time the outing happened, however, hundreds of people had spontaneously joined the "finger soccer" campaign just for fun, not realizing that the videos they uploaded were part of a viral advertising effort.
Another recent ad campaign that tried to use Web communities to generate artificial buzz was internet hardware manufacturer Cisco's "human network" campaign. You may remember seeing the phrase "human network" in Cisco ads, but Cisco wanted to do more than create a slogan. They wanted people to start using the phrase "human network" as everyday slang for the internet — the idea, I think, would be to cement a connection in people's unconscious minds between Cisco, the internet, and a kind of Utopian "human network" (which Cisco hardly is, given that its technology is what makes the Great Firewall of China possible). According to digital marketing blog ChasNote:
Since the "human network"� isn't yet a well-defined phrase, [Cisco] enlisted thought leaders to volunteer their own definitions, without guidance from Cisco or Ogilvy. Contributors included a handful of FM authors, such as Boing Boing's David Pescovitz, 43Folders's Merlin Mann, Metafilter's Matt Haughey, GigaOM's Om Malik, Wi-Fi Networking News's Glenn Fleishman, Newsvine's Mike Davidson, XYZ Computing's Sal Cangeloso, TechCrunch's Mike Arrington, Searchblog's John Battelle and Make's Phil Torrone. These authors penned their thoughts and plugged them into Cisco ads on their own sites. The ads then invite readers to visit a Cisco landing page that hosts definitions from other thought leaders and gives them an opportunity to vote for a favorite. If they don't see a definition that gets it right, they can also click to the "human network" page at Wikia (a collection of freely-hosted wiki communities built on the same software as Wikipedia) to edit the definition there.
The line between advertising and mind control here is quite blurred: it was as if Cisco was trying to retcon a phrase into existence, with the help of several popular cultural commentators, and then lay claim to it. Luckily, the campaign didn't really work. The phrase "human network" in Wikipedia redirects to "social network," and the phrase was relegated to a mere advertising slogan rather than popular geek slang.
Why are these campaigns a harbinger of things to come? First of all, they are directly engaged with a form of media — social networks — that are only likely to grow bigger as time goes on. Advertising can't only be those little tiny Google ads that go up the side of the page, and advertisers are going to do everything they can to become part of the content on a YouTube or Facebook so that they are more closely woven into the fabric of those networks. After all, you go to YouTube to see wacky videos, not to read the ads. So if advertisers can infiltrate the videos and make you watch their stuff, it's as if you've voluntarily tuned into a TV ad.
This is more disturbing than what I guess you could call traditional advertising mainly because a lot of it is extremely misleading. Ads that are "teasers" are one thing — you know, putting some cool phrase or image out there, only to reveal that it's an Altoids ad three weeks later. But ads that pretend to be real endorsements from regular people? That hide their corporate sponsorship, and use the ideas of underpaid people? It's like turning YouTube into a marketing sweatshop. Advertising dystopia, here we come.