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hoax marketing

Photo courtesy of Neil Patel

A YouTube video of a young French tourist who returned to Queensland, Australia, to find the father of her unborn child recently attracted worldwide attention. In the video, a woman named Natalie Amyot appealed for help to find the man she had met during her visit. The clip quickly drew over a million views.

It was a marketing hoax. Sunny Coast Digital Marketing revealed in a second video that the story was fake — a recent example of intentional hoax marketing. The revelation drew extensive criticism. Sunny Coast had staged the video and created  “Natalie’s” Facebook profile for Holiday Mooloolaba, a business owned by Mooloolaba Real Estate.

Andy Sellar, chief executive and owner of Sunny Coast, said he expected the controversy.  “There is no textbook way to do a viral campaign,” Sellar told SmartCompany. “It has to be controversial. If people don’t become emotionally involved, they won’t share it.”

The real estate company is now famous, he said.  Media outlets that covered the first video had to report the second one revealing the hoax, providing double exposure for his client.

Questionable Business Impact

Other PR and marketing leaders questioned the campaign’s success. It may have gained the client temporary fame, but did nothing to build a positive relationship with customers. The impact, they say, is probably negative.

“This hoax may well go down in history as a textbook case of what not to do as part of a marketing strategy,” commented marketing consultant Kirsty Brundsen. “This was lazy, potentially harmful marketing. And if anything, should serve as a warning to businesses not to attempt ‘going viral’ at all costs.”

Clients often say they want to “go viral.” Yet going viral does not necessarily lead to increased sales or even improved brand awareness. It didn’t in this case. The video mentioned the Queensland business only briefly and the business gained no benefit.

More importantly, the desire to go viral does not trump ethics.

Successful Hoax Marketing Examples

Employing hoax marketing can indeed draw negative publicity for the brand, says marketing expert Neil Patel. Caution is essential. However, hoaxes can be a successful link-building strategy as media outlets and bloggers link to the hoax, even while criticizing it.

Marketers can create a fake, perhaps humorous, product or design a website that parodies a well-known institution. The possibilities are endless.

In one example, Ivar Haglund, founder of a Seattle-based seafood restaurant chain, announced he had installed billboards underwater in the Puget Sound back in 1954. He said he expected people would drive personal submarines in the future and wanted to advertise to submarine-driving diners.

The campaign kicked off with sailors recovering a weathered billboard from Puget Sound. It said “bowl of clam chowder for just 75 cents,” the price in the 1950s.

The company received unfavorable publicity when the billboard was revealed to be a wooden prop. But sales quadrupled, and the restaurant received many backlinks from media outlets and marketing blogs.

Bottom Line: Hoax marketing is a potent yet controversial technique for gaining publicity and improving SEO. It can attract enormous news media and social media attention and prompt scores of backlinks. However, if not handled carefully, it can attract negative publicity and questionable business benefits.

What’s your opinion of hoax marketing? Please comment below.

William J. Comcowich founded and served as CEO of CyberAlert LLC, the predecessor of Glean.info. He is currently serving as Interim CEO and member of the Board of Directors. Glean.info provides customized media monitoring, media measurement and analytics solutions across all types of traditional and social media.