In a world where brands can immediately rise to fame with a viral tweet, video, or image, marketing hoaxes are becoming increasingly popular forms of content. A well-planned hoax can gain fans and accolades, but a poor one can turn an opportunity into a crisis. Here are a few best practices for taking advantage of this finicky tactic and case studies to learn from.
April Fools’ Day is the Safest, But Also the Most Boring Option
April Fools’ Day can be a hit or miss with brands. Oftentimes the marketing department comes up with a brilliant idea on March 31 and has no time whatsoever to execute it. April Fools’ Day really is the best bet for brands that want to try their hands at a hoax, because it’s safest. You’re tricking your audiences because it’s the holiday season, which makes the content topical.
The Good: Scope Mouthwash
In 2013, Scope debuted its new bacon mouthwash with a major social media push – including use of the hashtag #scopebacon – and a microsite with product info and FAQs. Scope explained that no pigs were harmed in the making of their mouthwash and that it doesn’t actually make your breath smell like bacon. The mouthwash tastes like bacon while you’re swishing, but has a mint aftertaste for fresh breath.
Shortly after, Scope came clean that their new product was just a good-natured April Fools’ prank. They thanked fans for giving them the courage to laugh at themselves and still have the microsite up today. It was a very safe, short-lived hoax.
The Bad: The Savings Bank of Rockville
Back in 1999, the Savings Bank of Rockville tried to be satirical and took out an ad in the paper explaining that anyone who wanted to talk to a live teller would be charged a five dollar fee. The small bank needed to keep up with the big chains and was implementing the fee to provide ”professional, caring and superior customer service” to patrons. The problem was that the hoax was too believable – and would still be too believable today.
According to The Social Marketing Blog, more than 1,000 customers closed their accounts. The bank took out another ad and made a statement that it was merely an April Fools’ Day prank. While April Fools’ Day might seem safe, there’s always the chance that your plan will backfire and you’ll actually lose business. If you do plan to prank your customers, create a crisis PR plan so your team can jump into action during the worst case scenarios.
Admit that it’s a Hoax When You’re Caught
When some brands are caught, they just keep denying any involvement or falsity behind a hoax. This is bad form for two reasons. First, any sense of humor a brand might have had is lost when the company doesn’t know how to end the joke. It’s like repeating the punchline or explaining why a joke is funny, it kills it. Also, the whole point of these hoaxes is to draw more exposure for your brand. Stand up and let your team and products shine.
Even if your company never publicly admits that it was behind the hoax, the information will come out in one way or another. There are too many Redditors and trolls living in their parents’ basements to hide forever, you will be found out.
The Good: Jimmy Kimmel
Many late night show hosts pull pranks, but very few create elaborate hoaxes like Jimmy Kimmel. He started by releasing a video that featured a girl twerking against a door, then falling and catching on fire. The video racked up 9 million views in a week and received global media coverage. All Kimmel did was put the video on YouTube, and soon after released a second one where he enters the room and puts out the fire.
During the Sochi Olympics, Kimmel created a video of a wolf wandering down a hall that looked like the Olympic dorms. He sent it to U.S. luger Kate Hansen to post on YouTube and Tweet out. The video was taken seriously by CNN, BBC, and even the Russian Olympic authorities. A few days later, Kimmel debunked the hoax through a Skype call with Hansen.
These hoaxes work because they’re on-brand for Kimmel; his show revolves around making people laugh. What makes them so impressive is that they’re taken seriously and are completely believable to media, that’s the mark of a good hoax.
The Bad: GoPro
GoPro does a lot of things right with their marketing and the brand is a favorite of outdoor adventurers, but a few “user generated” videos have raised some eyebrows about the legitimacy of GoPro and its viral marketing tactics.
In 2011 and 2012, two videos surfaced of seagulls stealing GoPro cameras, flying high into the air, and then dropping the camera from a safe height in an easy-to-find location. They were both so similar and were so favorable to the GoPro brand. Plus, both seagulls had the plenty of opportunities to break the camera or drop it from extreme heights. While it’s true that people will say GoPro instead of “sturdy outdoor camera” in the same way that they’ll ask for a Band-Aid instead of a small bandage, the videos seemed too good to be true.
GoPro never came forward and admitted that it was a hoax, but to this day many people think it was fake. There’s no closure, and the only results are long, rambling articles on conspiracy websites.
Being Boring is Almost as Bad as Being Offensive
Hoax marketing involves walking a thin tightrope between being boring and being offensive. If you invest your time in something uninteresting, the news will either cover your failure or nothing at all. If you’re offensive, you’re in for a whole other world of hurt.
The Good: Nvidia
At the end of last year, a mysterious crop circle appeared in California, about two hours south of San Francisco. The crop circle was mostly round with a few outlying circles, and had multiple squares inside. News vans and curious onlookers flocked to the barely field to take a look at the circle for themselves, some even commenting that the shape looked like a computer chip.
Well, it kind of was.
Nvidia created the crop circle ahead of CES to draw publicity to its Tegra K1 super chip. The purpose of the chip is to move Nvidia outside of the PC gaming world and into smartphones. Like Jimmy Kimmel’s pranks, this was brilliant because it had all of mainstream media – including CNN – fooled. More importantly, this is a perfect example of a B2B company having fun with marketing and participating in mainstream press techniques. It’s actually the only B2B on our list, and that’s why it needs a hat tip.
The Bad: MTV and BET
In back to back hacks last February, Burger King was turned into a McDonalds account and Jeep “announced” that it had been bought by Cadillac. Brands were changing their passwords left and right and doing everything they could to keep their accounts secure. MTV and BET decided to make lemons out of lemonade and “hacked” each other’s accounts. The only problem was that they’re both owned by the same company and both accounts switched their logos completely. They might have had a fighting chance if BET took over MTV or vice-versa, instead of trying a Freaky Friday swap.
The apparent goal was to increase the Twitter following of both parties. Fans of either BET or MTV could discover the other and follow both. Both channels thought they were witty and topical, but it ended up looking like a cheesy marketing ploy. They completely fell off the tightrope into boring.
As you head to the drawing board to start planning your hoaxes, keep these case studies in mind. Learn from what went wrong and pray to the viral Gods that you follow in the success of what went right. Going viral is tricky business, and only the luckiest win.