One of my ad agency's clients was recently approached by a man with an intriguing proposition. He was, he explained, responsible for a well-known alternative comedian's Facebook page and Twitter account, each of which were followed by nearly 250,000 young men — just the sort of cool, trend-setting audience that has become so hard to reach through conventional advertising. For a sum that compared very favourably with the cost of an old-fashioned TV spot, he was offering to "seed", or talk up, my client's products.
It would work like this. The celebrity would say that he'd spotted a new ad on YouTube he really liked. His followers would check out the clip via an embedded link. There would then be a lively debate about whether the celebrity was right, using YouTube's comment facility. Meanwhile, the celebrity would report that he'd tried the product itself and had forgotten just how good it was, and so on — an apparently virtuous circle of social networking, free viral media, product placement, user-generated content and celebrity blogging. These are seductive enough buzzwords when used singly, but when set in conjunction like this, they are almost guaranteed to send any marketing man into paroxysms of digital excitement. My client wanted us to go ahead as quickly as possible.
There was just one flaw in this proposal: the celebrity didn't exist. Or rather, he exists, but someone had created a Facebook page and Twitter account in his name and had then gone about building up an audience large enough to warrant this kind of scam. This, of course, was the person who had approached my client.
It turned out that he had been completely open about this aspect of the scheme: he was operating within the law, or thereabouts, as he had never explicitly said online that he was the celebrity whose name he was using — only that he had just been to the Baftas and wasn't Jonathan Ross rubbish? It was with some difficulty that I managed to persuade my client that this was not something in which he should get involved.