Volkswagen Fights Viral Infection

A man pulls up to a crowded sidewalk café in a black Volkswagen Polo, wearing a black-and-white checked scarf indicative of PLO fighters and an olive suicide bomber's bomb-belt. He presses the detonator button, and the inside of the car fills with a fireball, but the car contains it, and the people sitting at the café are unharmed and unaware--then the Polo's tagline appears onscreen: "Small, but tough."

Lee and Dan, a London-based Independent agency, has taken credit for the spot, which treads the line between edgy and offensive, but the U.K. agency has not yet publicly stated who--if anyone--funded the spot--which has high production values and appears to be professionally made.

Dan, who did not give a last name, stated in an e-mail: "We've had quite a lot of media attention and we're trying to keep a low profile at the moment." He declined further comment.

VW vehemently denies having anything to do with the effort. "Volkswagen dissociates itself absolutely from a hoax advertisement that has recently been accessible via the Internet," a VW spokesperson said. "Neither Volkswagen nor any agency acting on behalf of Volkswagen was involved in any way with the creation, production, or distribution of this material."

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Still, the buzz generated by the hoax, which first appeared as early as Tuesday, raises the question of how much companies can control what consumers are saying about them on the Web.

Some industry Web logs speculate that the spot might be a black-bag ad produced secretly by VW and leaked to the public. Pete Blackshaw, co-founder of the Word of Mouth Marketing Association, finds this idea implausible. "I have a very hard time seeing Volkswagen even considering this," he said. "The Web is a danger zone for taking risks like that. The propensity for getting caught or outed or exposed is huge." JupiterResearch analyst Niki Scevak added that regardless of whether VW had a hand in creating the ad, it's hard to know for sure how the company brass really feels about it. "The nuances and the truth behind that are often hard," Scevak said. "The same stance will be taken from a PR standpoint, but the truth behind their actual happiness with the ad will never be known."

Viral ads that take company's brands and put them in compromising positions are not at all a new phenomenon. Ads for the Ford SportKa depicted the car's hood smacking a pigeon out of mid-air and its sunroof decapitating a curious cat. Ford denied any connection with the ads. And in early 2003, a fake Puma ad depicted a woman and a man in a sexually suggestive position.

That ad, which was very popular among bloggers at the time, showed a woman in a short skirt on her knees in front of a man. Both members of the couple were clad in Puma sneakers, and a Puma bag with the logo prominently displayed was in the foreground.

Despite the appeal that the ad may have held for the coveted young male 18-34 market, Puma's executives were not amused. Puma sent cease-and-desist orders to Web sites hosting the ad, and threatened legal action to anyone posting the ad, which the company termed "defamatory." New York, N.Y.-based pop culture Web log Gawker quipped at Puma: "It's the best ad that's been done for your company in years, and you didn't design it."

Blackshaw predicted that this kind of rogue advertising will become more and more prolific. "You're going to see that all over the Web. It's going to be irresistible," he said. "One of the biggest stories of 2005 is going to be the evolution from text to multimedia in consumer-generated media. You can see it in vivid Technicolor on the blogs."

Much like Puma, Volkswagen has said it is investigating legal action against the creators of the ads. According to Blackshaw, this will be an uphill battle. "Certainly if the brand is being deliberately besmirched or damaged, there's some legitimate cause for corrective action. I think it's naïve for companies to think that they can put out the fire for expression that they don't agree with," he said.

In the case of the controversial Puma ad, bloggers continued to post the images despite Puma's legal threats. And it's likely that people will continue to view the VW ad even if they go through with legal action against Lee and Dan. "It's naïve for companies to think they can control what people say on the Web, but it's predictably naïve," Blackshaw said. "A lot of companies are in the very early stages of getting the Net. It takes a lot of education."

Ultimately, Blackshaw said, these "hoax" viral ads are simply an expression of how consumers feel about a company. "Is there really that much difference between someone tweaking the brand to create an edgy ad campaign and someone writing a review online?"

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