Authenticity, Transparency, and Stealth Advertising

The latest controversy about lonelygirl15 on YouTube has really forced the authenticity and transparency issue to the forefront of online marketers’ minds. For those who may not have heard the news, here’s a brief recap:

Lonelygirl15 is the YouTube screen name of a 15-year-old girl, commonly known as Bree, who’s been keeping a video diary of her life. She found celebrity status discussing her conflicted romantic feelings about her friend Daniel, rebellion against her parents, and the fact her parents don’t know about her video blog. All told, her channel has had over 3.5 million views and over 41,000 subscribers as of last week. (For the record, the most popular commercial on YouTube is the Sony Bravia spot which also has 3.5 million views.) Lonelygirl’s completely viral popularity has boosted her to celebrity status — all from several videos she made in her bedroom. Many loved the videos’ voyeuristic quality. They felt they were sneaking a peek into an authentic person, the trials and tribulations of a teen.

Or so they thought.

As it turns out, lonelygirl is a young, out-of-work actress named Jessica Lee Rose, who was working with three filmmakers. They were exposed recently when some fans began to suspect Bree wasn’t a real person. Loyal viewers felt tremendous betrayal, the unwritten truth and generosity rule of blogging and social media was ignored. Rose was quoted in “Forbes” as saying, “I can understand their disappointment. I’m sure they did invest a lot of time in the lonelygirl15 videos. I feel bad that they invested in it emotionally and were disappointed.”

Marketers and commercialism were blamed and now the issue is in the headlines. That’s a good thing.

The lonelygirl case raises important issues for advertisers surrounding transparency and disclosure. When I discussed it with Misha Cornes, our director of strategy and executive editor of our blog, he said, “The Web to date has been mostly about real communication between people and communities, especially on most Web 2.0 platforms. Authenticity is paramount, particularly for teens.”

He’s right.

Fake consumer-generated-media (CGM) is a dangerous business for marketers. Our company belongs to the Word of Mouth Marketing Association, and according to the WOMMA Code of Ethics, written in 2005, the guidelines are clear:

  • Consumer Protection Comes First: Marketers must extend special care to go above and beyond to ensure that consumers are protected and never deceived.

  • Disclosure is Always Necessary: Marketers must always provide clear and unambiguous disclosure of their participation in word of mouth conversations and consumer-driven media.

The question we must ask ourselves, and the ultimate lesson the lonelygirl campaign teaches us, is,: “Is the risk associated with potentially being exposed and alienating your audience worth the buzz your brand may receive?” The correct answer always lies in respecting your consumer: no. Using social media to deliver pure marketing content is dangerous. Consumers are smart, and they have the communication channels and skills to expose what you’re doing, particularly if it becomes successful.

Mess it up and the backlash will be devastating.

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