Authenticity is Dead: Times Square iPhone hack – marketing genius or downward spiral?

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There is an unwritten code in movie making that I used to love to talk about back when I was writing papers about the rhetorical implications of this or that scene from this or that movie as compared to some other.  It has been a while since I’ve found the chance to talk about it again and I kind of always assumed I would again one day – I just assumed it would be on my blog about movies and music (http://andsquare.posterous.com) and not as an entry on the blog I reserve for exploration of issues regarding marketing, pr, and social media. 

I should have seen it coming, of course. These worlds have done nothing but merge since social media as an industry burst forth fully formed from the head of the internet – like Zeus birthing Athena – back at the turn of the last century. I came at social media from the early days of dial up bbs systems over dreadfully slow modems and moved on to storytelling via film only to return to web based technologies and social media when film went digital.

As a student of film theory and a fledgling screenwriter, I learned to talk about the “contract with the audience” that loosely interpreted says “You may trick us this far but no farther.” As audiences, we don’t mind being duped, in fact for some of us that’s half the fun. but no matter the audience there is that sort of implied line that one cannot cross that says “if you’ve tricked us this far, you’ve flat out lied and that’s not cool.”

Some of the best movies, in my opinion, have traversed this line with all the grace and daring of a bullfighter diagnosed with a terminal illness. Hitchcock, Lynch, and others have made careers out of their ability to exploit this hidden contract to its fullest. Marketers, on the other hand, often lack the motivation to tread lightly on these dreams.

Quite the opposite, the marketer’s M.O. is more that of a bull in a china shop than anything else, and who can blame us? We have precious few moments to get our point across – give now, buy now, look here, want this – that often the only tools in our toolboxes are hammers.

Enough of the mixed metaphors, already. My point is simply this – making an average Joe quality style video that contains some artfully engineered “wow” moments is great. Creating the impression of an actual “hack” event in Times Square – also OK. Lying to the public about where it came from? Not ok.

Let me go further, as I’m sure there are some out there that are still missing the distinction. I believe that this moment in YouTube history (if only by virtue of its assumed virility) makes an excellent case study. 

Again, I have no problem with the trickery of the “hack” per se. What I feel is problematic is the fact that the false hack was falsely presented as emanating from a source other than a major motion picture studio as an attention gathering mechanism expressly engineered for its virility in order to boost awareness of an upcoming film.

It breaks the contract with the viewer that says “I’ll trick you this far, but no farther.” 

What if the studio had released the video from its own account – even stating that they were curating as found from elsewhere? I’m sure the “wow – how’d they do that” factor would still have played, right?

Again, a marketer is generally not willing to run that risk as the marketer is essentially a storyteller with no contract with its audience. Up to now, that hasn’t been an issue. Marketers used channels that had within them a certain “one way” spirit inherent. After all, folks could always just “tune out” the commercials, right? And the BBB would keep anybody from LYING on broadcast television, right?

But marketers have entered a new realm. Our realm. The realm of conversations through social media. There are new rules in our realm, the realm of the people, by the people, and for the people, right? Authenticity?  Remember when that was a rule?

Caveat Emptor, the old “adage” goes.  Perhaps Ad Age (or Information Week) can help us come up with the Latin for “Let the YouTube Viewer Beware.” Or maybe even the old English for “Authenticity is dead. Long live authenticity.”

“We basically rented the screens on Times Square,” Krivicka told InformationWeek. “We had our own footage play on there, which had sync points that were looping every 60 seconds. So we basically synced up the footage on our iPhone and made it look, with rehearsed timing, like it’s being hacked into. It was really simple.”

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