The comms industry’s insatiable hunger for hoax marketing shows no signs of slowing.
In recent weeks, we’ve seen a slew of online campaigns that seek to piggyback shareable trends while downplaying or totally hiding the brands they were made to promote. At the more mainstream end of the spectrum, Snickers tried to soak up some fourth wave feminist traffic with their “feminist builders” spot. At the subtler end, there are rumours that US actor James Franco’s attempted liaison with a 17 year old may be part of an ingenious PR stunt .
The smug hipsters who dream all this up probably don’t realise that they form but one part of a proud tradition. This sort of PR trickery has been going on since the first hucksters and showmen. It was common throughout the last few centuries. As long as there has been stuff to sell, there have been people seeking to stir up trouble and “word of mouth” with some carefully-placed, mischeivious fibs.
There was Orson Welles’s 1938 reading of The War of the Worlds, which led many viewers to believe the earth was actually being invaded.
Or what about the great Hollywood publicist Harry Reichenbach, who put lions in hotel rooms and manufactured moral panics in the name of making a quick buck? In 1913, a young Reichenbach was hired by a small art shop, tasked with shifting copies of a fairly bland lithograph called “September Morn”, which featured a naked woman. Reichenbach understood that he had to make the picture notorious, but was unable to persuade Anthony Comstock, then head of the anti-vice society, that the image was a problem. Undeterred, Reichenbach hired local youths to stand around whooping and catcalling at the painting. Comstock was fooled, and tried to have the picture banned. Only hired to shift 2,000 copies, Reichenbach ensured the picture eventually sold seven million units.
There are eternal themes at work here. Throughout history, all PR folk have done , with varying degrees of success, is to try and second-guess the hive mind of their audience. They look at what the herd is thinking and feeling, and they introduce a story meme, which will disrupt it just enough to be shocking, but speak to it enough to be alluring.
Snickers did this with their appeal to feminist bloggers, Reichenbach did it with his taunting of his age’s moralisers and killjoys.
As PT Barnum, the great circus promoter who pulled the wool over his public’s eyes countless times, once said: “As a general thing, I have not ‘duped the world’ nor attempted to do so; I have generally given people the worth of their money twice told.”
A great hoax is a wonderful thing, exciting the soul as much as any product it’s made to promote. Let’s not pretend though that “interactive viral” is anything new or clever!