Big Lake Ontario shark hoax shows risks posed by viral marketing, experts say

TORONTO – An online video hoax of a shark in Lake Ontario that caused real-world consternation this past week demonstrates the attention-grabbing risks marketers are taking in an increasingly media-fractured universe, experts say.

The problem, they say, is efforts to stand out from the crowd via “prankvertising” or “guerrilla” marketing can easily backfire.

“Until you’ve done something, you can’t really say, ‘OK, maybe that wasn’t the smartest idea’,” said Stephen Morgan, former creative director with MR.G in Toronto.

“There is definitely no rule book.”

It was only on Wednesday — six days after the Youtube video surfaced that frightened some lake users and sparked safety concerns that ultimately reached the Ontario legislature — that Discovery Canada admitted the finned creature was a life-like model.

The idea was to create some buzz for a TV series on real sharks, not cause terror, Discovery Canada president Paul Lewis said by way of an explanation.

“There was no anticipation on our side to cause any kind of fear or upset at all,” Lewis said.

Some observers were skeptical.

Morgan said creative talent at ad agencies aim to be “disruptive” and that in his opinion: “You can bet the (Discovery) creatives hoped for that, even if they downplayed it to the client. Shame on agencies for selling this kind of stuff.”

Those behind the fake shark video said they decided to come clean when they became aware of stories of people talking about not getting in the water.

“The intent really was simply to stir up some discussion,” Lewis of Discovery Canada has said.

Sometimes, the disruption appears to be inadvertent, as happened earlier this month when a summer marketing campaign run by Coors Light Canada — featuring a briefcase attached to a metal railing — prompted an emergency response and closure of a major intersection in Toronto during rush hour.

The briefcase, one of hundreds hidden across the country, was part of a month-long challenge to find prizes using an online map and social-media clues.

At other times, the law of unintended marketing consequences kicks in with a vengeance. In one example from 2006, a blogger helped his buddy get a PlayStation Portable for Christmas. A furious backlash ensued when people discovered the bogus blog was simply a Sony marketing ploy. And studies suggest people tend to pass on negative information at double or quadruple the rates of positive info.

Jeremy Robinson, creative director with Toronto-based Jar Creative, said engineering a “viral” video without provoking anger or upset is difficult.

“We’re in unchartered territory,” Robinson said. “A lot of this stuff is brand new and people are going to push the boundaries. Ultimately, it’s up to the brand to determine what they’re comfortable with.”

What’s clear, experts said, is that Discovery’s shark campaign did reach part of advertising’s holy grail: awareness spread via social-media sharing and water-cooler chat — in this case about the possibility or improbability of sharks in the lake.

Less clear is whether the heightened awareness would translate into more Discovery viewers.

Monica LeBarge, assistant professor of marketing at Queen’s University school of business, said grabbing attention is one thing. Creating a negative attitude is another.

“I’m not really inclined to go watch “Shark Week” now — I’m more just annoyed at the Discovery Channel for making me worry,” LeBarge said.

“(But) it’s not surprising to see things like this happen when people are trying to be cutting and edgy and maybe just aren’t thinking through what the implications are.”

David Soberman, professor of marketing at the Rotman School of Management, said Discovery might have been onto something initially, but should have stepped in to unmask the deception more quickly.

“They might have let it go too far,” Soberman said. “You have to close the loop quickly. You can actually upset people. Once it gets to six days, some people may have already lost face.”

Morgan said he doubted Discovery would see any kind of spike in viewership.

At the same time, he said, any ill-will the ad might have caused will likely subside quickly. After all, we live in a fast-paced world where people are constantly bombarded with messages and images.

“We can’t hold their attention,” Morgan said. “So even when things go bad, it will be forgotten in no time.”

On one point there is substantial agreement: that marketers and advertisers will keep pushing the limits to try to make people sit up and take notice.

Much of those efforts will happen through social media, where a deluge of Facebook “likes” or a tsunami of shares — in other words, having a video or some other message “go viral” — is the modern equivalent to striking gold on the Klondike.

“There’s a sense of urgency: What do we do to get the message out?” said Michel Neray, chief differentiation officer with Toronto-based The Essential Message.

“I do think we’re going to greater and greater shock value. It’s all about how to we stand out from the crowd.”