Sep 18, 2008

Subtlety and Advertising Don’t Mix



There’s an article (subscibers only, sorry) in today’s Wall Street Journal about how Walden Media and 20th Century Fox have co-opted a 15 year-old YouTube star named Lucas Cruikshank to shill for their new movie “City of Ember.”

Which is not a horrible idea in and of itself. Only they are going about it the absolute wrong way.

Cruikshank’s (completely homemade) videos have him playing a hyperactive 6 year-old named Fred. So he is in character the whole time. But rather than have Fred come out and openly shill for “City of Ember” the plan (which you can see the beginnings of in the video above) is to have him very very casually “discover” it in passing and slowly bring it up to his fans so that they too can discover it. Which seemed like a clever plan to one prominent ad agency creative director who told the Journal that “By not being so overt and making it look like he’s discovering the film for his audience, it comes across as less pushy.”

Perhaps. But it also comes across as lying.

Think about it: when celebrities shill for a product, you know they’re shilling. They may not honestly like the product, but it’s clear that they’ve been paid for the honor. We’ve been inculcated in this notion since the early days of television when words like “this has been a paid announcement for Ford” were the norm.

But social media is different. If I were to casually mention on here that I really loved the new iPhone, you’d probably not think much of it. If you later found out, however, that I wrote about my love for the iPhone because Apple paid me to write about it, you’d feel angry and deceived. You weren’t suspecting an advertising message. You were trusting that my opinion really was my own, that it was what Alan Wolk really believed. Not what he was paid to believe.

Well ditto Fred. Yes, he’s a fictional character, but he’s a creation of the filmmaker and we assume that the things he touches on are things that reflect that filmmakers artistic sensibility. Not things he was paid to mention. Product placement happens in TV shows and films, but those are not nearly as personal as Fred. They’re also made by professionals, whereas Cruikshank is clearly an amateur. The fact that it’s aimed at kids, who are by more gullible by nature, makes the whole venture even sleazier.

It’s fine to use YouTube celebrities in ads. It’s even fine to use them in ads, in character, on YouTube. You’ve just got to let us know that’s what you’re doing. Because if we find out you’ve been tricking us-- and we will, we always will-- we’re not going to like you—or your stooge very much.

And while we might forgive your stooges their naiveté, we won’t forgive you. Because after all people, Your Brand Is Not My Friend.

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