Even as the British unit of Volkswagen prepared yesterday to confront the creators of a fake Volkswagen commercial circulating online, executives there said they were worried that the incident would not be the last. Rather, they said, it may set the table for more hoaxes and brand confusion. "The difficulty is, of course, that the general public may not know who is behind what they see on the Internet," said Paul Buckett, the head of press and public relations at Volkswagen Group U.K. in London. "And in the future it may not be easy to take legal action to defend ourselves. That's not just for Volkswagen, of course, but for any company or individual." Viral marketing, in which low-profile ads spread quickly online as people share them, has become an intriguing strategy for many marketers trying to look beyond traditional 30-second television commercials. But marketers are not the only ones taking the viral approach. Because the Web and cheap video technology keep making it easier for anyone with some knowledge and equipment to produce spots that look almost like real commercials, brand managers may find their carefully calibrated marketing messages increasingly being tweaked, teased, spoiled or entirely undermined. Consumers, on the other hand, can now wonder whether each supposed hoax is an authorized, but deniable, below-the-radar marketing ploy. The hoax at hand has set off a particularly sharp bout of distress since its appearance last week, because it looks almost exactly like a real commercial for the Volkswagen Polo, a model sold outside the United States, except that it portrays the Polo driver as a suicide bomber.Will there be more of these? Absolultely. Digital editting, cheap cameras and a world full of talented folk makes these things entirely possible and the 30-second spot is the perfect length to show off a budding filmmaker's skills without completely draining their time and resources! More to the point, some companies try to use viral marketing without acknowledging their own involvement. Mazda made some attempts last year, but they were pretty average and probably did more harm than good (never make a half-baked attempt via the ever-critical blogosphere!). At the other end of the spectrum there are homage ads or "customer evangelism" such as George Masters' wonderfully slick iPod Mini self-made ad. I think non-authorised ads are definitely here to stay, and the web makes viral distribution near-impossible to restrain or police. So how do we make sure consumers know the difference? Why, by educating them enough to tell the difference!!
In the commercial, the driver pulls up to a busy outdoor cafe, exposes explosives strapped to his chest and pushes a detonator. His car, however, contains the explosion without cracking a window. The spot ends with the Volkswagen logo and the actual Polo ad theme: "Small but tough." The spot was sent to the London office of DDB Worldwide, a Volkswagen roster agency, by two people known as Lee and Dan. "We had no part in disseminating it," said Annouchka Behrmann, public relations director at DDB London, part of the DDB Worldwide division of the Omnicom Group. "We think it's absolutely disgusting."
The Polo Viral Fake can be found here in QuickTime. As you can see, very tasteless, but very high production values. More to the point, given some of the tastelss ads around, you would have to think for a minute to realise this is a hoax. Of course, given the fact that any link or suggestion of a link to "terrorism" could ruin a company, the educated viewer would surely figure this one out by themselves!