"Viral Marketing" at its worst.


I just got an email from Heavy.com, an online video fartfest for young men. I presume they contacted me because I've posted about Sacha Baron Cohen and Borat before -- they're running a "viral" ad campaign (disguised as content) for the DVD release of Borat.

I once saw Heavy's co-founder, Simon Asaad, speak at a podcasting convention. It was a formative experience for me in the way that I view media, and particularly media on the internet. He took the dais and let it rip - berating the podcasters in attendance for working for free, and specifically for allowing their personal interests and passions to determine the nature of their work.

Then he ran down his company's achievements -- it's sort of a lowest-common-denominator video site -- taking particular note of the huge check Burger King had given them to host a "viral video" contest in which young men did various outrageous things while wearing Burger King masks. If I could pick one word to describe the tone of his speach, it would be "taunting." His main message: if you're not completely outrageous, your work is worthless. If you're paying for content, or paying content creators, you're worthless. There isn't, and shouldn't be, a line between advertising and content. The talk shocked and sickened me.

I'm certainly not against commercialization -- witness the advertisement to the right of this post. In fact, I was at the panel to learn about monetizing content -- which many of the non-offensive panelists on either side of Assad had also done. I'm not even against outrageousness -- Ze Frank is outrageous, it's one of the reasons he's so succesful. What I am against is duplicity. I don't like tricking people into advertising for you, or taking huge checks to blur the line between content and brand marketing. What happened to morality?

So imagine my dismay when I got this email:

Dear Jesse:

So we have the privilege of hosting the official Borat’s Videotime Contest — a Borat impersonation video contest — here on Heavy until March 30. I was hoping that the Sound of Young America would give this momentous event a shout out as Fox doesn’t seem to be doing much in the way of spreading the word. This promotion is part of a larger campaign for the DVD release of Borat (the movie) and the winner will be awarded a $3,500 cash prize. We’re hoping that this promotion will help resurrect some of the Borat-mania we’ve all enjoyed over the past couple months... After all, Borat’s exploits — and Sacha Baron Cohen’s multiple acts at large – unmask some interesting aspects of Americana and I wouldn’t want so see any such opportunities wasted.

The rules and regulations, along with the video submission upload page, can be found at http://XXXX.heavy.com .

I sure hope this is newsworthy to you and to your readership! Please let me know what you think.

With kind regards,
Heavy.com, etc etc etc

I wrote back:

You mention that "Fox doesn't seem to be spreading the word." I should presume that Heavy is not being paid by Fox to host the contest?

The Sound of Young America

The Heavy.com rep wrote back:

Fox is sponsoring this but we’re responsible for all the organization and prizing etc. Again, this is part of a larger campaign we’re running for them in conjunction with the DVD release of Borat. Your thoughts?

Here are my thoughts: Borat, the film, was succesful because it was outrageously good. It "went viral," becoming a popular topic of public discourse, for the same reason. I even participated in it, posting about the film, character, and even discussing it on a national radio show.

I don't have a problem with lots of people making lots of money off of this -- in fact, I think it's a great idea. Larry Charles, the film's director, just signed a big-money Hollywood deal to develop TV shows. Sacha Baron Cohen has gone from cult star to star star. Fox is basically printing money with the DVD release. There's a sequel in the works.

But do you really have to lie about it? Is misinformation the best way to spread a great idea?

I wrote to the heavy.com person:

My thoughts are that this kind of marketing is duplicitous, manipulative and really unfortunate. It's a crass commercialization of young people's creativity.

I would feel better about it if you weren't misrepresenting it as some sort of grassroots struggle. I'm not against advertisements, or contests, but I would never run something like this on my website, represent it as "of the people," and disguise the fact that it's a bought-and-paid-for commercial enterprise.

It's my hope that as this kind of marketing grows in popularity, so will our defenses against it. I hope great ideas will spread, and bought-and-paid-for ones will not. We can ask the Simon Assaads of the world to stop, but their greed won't let them. When we face this kind of deception, we need to take responsibility for standing up and being counted: this bullshit has to stop.


Jesse, I'm beginning to understand why I enjoy your shows. You are "for reals," as the young youngsters like to say. I'll resist the urge to go off on a quasi-socialist rant and just say thanks for the work you do.

Good on you, Jesse, both in your public response and your private one back to them. And yeah, Heavy's making a lot more from Fox than the $3500 they're doling out to the winner.