On How NOT to Build Trust via the Internet

By now you probably have read the stories about Lonelygirl15 (read description on Wikipedia), a YouTube superstar that turned out to be a huge fraud. The quick-and-dirty synopsis is that Lonelygirl15 was a young 16-year-old who posted a video blog detailing her journey through the always fun teenage years. The problem was, Lonelygirl15 really wasn’t lonely and she really wasn’t 16. But she is an actress (and a good one at that). Lonelygirl15 is Jessica Rose, a 19-year-old actress and portrayed Lonelygirl15 under the direction of two hopeful screenwriters.

Fast forward to January 18, 2007, the day “Bride Has Massive Hair Wig Out” was posted to YouTube (see video on YouTube) . Being the “I know everything about the Internet guy” around my friends, I was disappointed when a good buddy was talking about this YouTube phenomenom a couple of weeks back during a Saturday outing to Target. I couldn’t believe what he was describing, a girl who totally flipped out about her hair just before her wedding, to the point of giving herself a “haircut” (read: chopping it off) right before walking down the aisle. Of course, as soon as I got back to the world of WiFi, I checked out the clip.

On Monday (2/12/07), I read that the clip was a fake. And I was steaming. Apparently, it was produced by Sunsilk Haircare Brand in Canada…here are the pertinent details from their Press Release:

The video was created to dramatize that “bad hair” is one of the challenges faced by young women, many of whom have experienced their own “wig-out” moments. It was never Sunsilk Canada’s intent to portray anything other than a dramatization.

Canada’s National Post has a great article (read Bridezilla feeds monster cynicism) describing the unfolding of the events and the potential repercussions of artificial viral marketing:

By exploiting our tendency to trust in the veracity of such online videos, it is only a matter of time, says Prof. Watson, before we will dismiss even real events or sincere emotional outpourings as just another buzz-building brand strategy.

“This is part of the overall trend toward stealth marketing,” says Alan Middleton, a marketing professor at York University’s Schulich School of Business, who says the trend is driven in part by concerns that traditional forms of marketing are losing their allure among certain target groups.

In the long term, developing this kind of skepticism will benefit all Internet users, Mr. Federman says. But in the short term, he says, online deceptions of the “wig-out” video variety have the potential to erode trust in events or moments that seem to be free of artifice or marketing interests.

Yes, Sunsilk got buzz from the video. But what sort of buzz? And at what expense to their brand? These sorts of “initiatives” – as Sunsilk called their little venture – are risky. They may lead to a temporary burst of publicity but people don’t liked being “played”. And if I was a Sunsilk customer, it would be more than enough to stop using their products.