Recent fake viral ads point to larger issues of accountability and liability.
By Ann Cooper
Over the past twelve months, suicide bombers, decapitated cats and projectile vomiting waiters were only a few of the more unpleasant viral images being circulated on the Internet, each supposedly representing well-known brands such as Volkswagen, Ford and Canadian singer, Bryan Adams.
With the market for such ads in the billions (based on the number of people globally who have e-mail accounts), more and more companies, particularly in the auto industry, are thinking virally. In an era of an unregulated and unfettered Internet, is anyone's image is up for grabs?
The latest Internet brouhaha involved a two-part fake viral Web site called, "Who Ordered Room Service," featuring a waiter vomiting over a couple making out to tracks from Bryan Adam's new album, "Room Service." Following a teaser, over 25,000 people clicked on to the site on Valentine's Day to find out who was behind it. For the creators Frank Lesser and Jason Woliner, amateur filmmakers from New York, it was a prank that took on a life of its own. "Jason and I had done other more political things and thought, 'here's a crazy, sort of disgusting thing that is redeemed because of absurdity,' " says Lesser. "We looked for romantic music for Valentine's Day, and chose Adams."
It wasn't out of malice, nor to make money, says Lesser. "We just wanted a song to reach a lot of people. Plus, Jason and I were irritated by viral marketing being seen as 'just something some crazy kids put up,' when it's done by a big company."
Adams himself declined to comment on the situation. "I don't think we put much stock in it," says a spokesperson for his record company, Universal Music Canada. "We just thought, 'Yech!' I'm fascinated that people have time to do this." Says Lesser, "I think it would have really taken off if they had tried to deny it, or sued us. Hopefully, [Bryan Adams] has a good sense of humor. And it probably helped him because we provided a link to his actual site and new album."
When a freelance creative team called Dan and Lee created a spoof VW Polo ad to promote themselves, it featured a suicide bomber driving to a busy shopping area and blowing himself up. The car absorbs the blast and ends with the real Polo tagline, "Small but tough." According to one report, Dan and Lee put a hidden link to it on their Web site to show a few mates. But by morning they were getting hundreds of e-mails.
Furious, VW threatened to sue for copyright infringement and damage to the brand, backing down only when a formal apology was issued by Dan and Lee. "Dan and Lee sent it to me as an attachment, and said, 'If you like it, we'd love to come and show you the rest of our work,' " says Jeremy Craigen, creative director at DDB London. "So they're not the most intelligent duo I've ever come across. But the more it happens, the less newsworthy it'll be, and then people will stop doing it."
To read more about our story on fake viral ads, pick up a copy of the Spring 2005 issue of one. a magazine, available in May.