Whether or not lonelygirl15 is art, it certainly owes its popularity to its willingness to blur the line between fact and fiction. It’s a strategy that, online and off, has been popping up increasingly, not only in underground publicity stunts but formal advertising campaigns. Over the past couple years, movie studios have started including fake websites in marketing campaigns for films like “Godsend” (godsend.com) and “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” (lacunainc.com), in each case portraying an ethically challenged medical clinic from the movie as a real-world enterprise. Corporate megaliths like Nike and the beverage giant Diageo have gotten in on the game as well, the former with a grainy online clip of Brazilian soccer star Ronaldinho performing a series of literally unbelievable feats with a soccer ball, the latter with a parody music video, released straight to YouTube, featuring a posse of rapping, Smirnoff-swilling preppies.
At the same time, companies are increasingly turning to so-called “word-of-mouth” advertising, in which products are hawked-sometimes by paid salespeople, sometimes just by volunteers-in ostensibly innocent everyday social interactions rather than traditional print ads or TV spots. In 2002, in a particularly controversial instance, Sony Ericsson dispatched 60 actors to tourist attractions to pose as sightseers and ask people to take their picture with a new camera phone before going on to extol its virtues-all without disclosing their connection to the company.
[...] In early November, the Federal Trade Commission will hold hearings looking into the issues raised by new online advertising strategies, asking, among other questions, whether they mislead consumers.
Yet ads that pretend not to be ads are hardly new. Fake word-of-mouth campaigns and hoax advertisements go back at least to the mid-19th century, and the rise of each new communication medium, whether it’s still photography, radio, or television, has presented new opportunities for advertisers to gull consumers. It’s an open question how exactly the Internet and today’s shifting media mix will change the advertising landscape. But growing concern about the efficacy of traditional advertising has left advertisers desperate for something more effective, and trying things they wouldn’t have before.