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The Joke's On You. Are You OK With That?

This actually happened, not long ago. A lawyer representing a suburban car dealership met with legal representatives for PepsiCo, Chevrolet, NASCAR and the corporate sponsors of a leading NASCAR driver. Also present were the manager of the dealership and the NASCAR star’s personal attorney and agent. The purpose of the meeting was to obtain everyone’s sign-off on a plan that would put an unsuspecting car salesman named Steve at risk of serious bodily injury or death. Although everyone agreed the risk would be minor.

Jeff, the NASCAR driver, would be taking on the same risk. But being a great driver, his agent said he had accepted the challenge and only hoped that Steve wouldn’t do anything stupid like grabbing the wheel or trying to kill the ignition. Steve’s boss said that was unlikely to happen. One of the lawyers wondered whether there was any possibility Steve could suffer a fear-induced heart attack, but everyone quickly agreed that was most unlikely.

The only other thing that could go wrong was that the salesman might be angry enough about the stunt to sue, even having survived it unscathed. “No problem,” the dealership’s lawyer assured everyone around the conference table. “Steve’s the kind of guy who will go ballistic during the stunt, but he’ll be back to his jovial self the second Jeff takes off his fake beard. He’ll probably even want to do it again!”

Everyone agreed that would be the perfect scenario. Documents were signed, hands shaken, and the prank was on!

And if you believe any of that, the joke is on you.

Of course you’re smart enough to know nothing I’ve described could ever have possibly happened. But are you one of more than 29 million people so far who have watched the recent Pepsi MAX ad on YouTube – the one with NASCAR star Jeff Gordon in disguise test-driving a Chevrolet Camaro as unsuspecting car salesman “Steve” screams with fear in the passenger seat? Did you buy it?

The entire ad is structured to convince you it’s an actual, documented event – from Jeff Gordon putting on his makeup to all the pranksters converging at the end to applaud “Steve” for being such a good sport. But when you watch the video while considering the absurd backstory such an event would require, it becomes easy to see the numerous “tells.” The perfectly framed “surreptitious” video. The plethora of “hidden” camera angles. The “acting.”

Still, seeing is believing, and it’s safe to say that the vast majority of viewers believed the ad is real. In the endless real-or-fake debate on the ad’s YouTube page, the minority who take the trouble to point out inconsistencies are likely to be met with derision and insults. Here’s one of the more levelheaded responses, from a commenter who claims to “have 15 years experience working for global corporations in brand marketing [and] know enough about what it takes to put something like this together”:

They punk’d the salesman, everyone else knew about this. Does that make it fake?

Jeff Gordon is no dummy, the dealer had to prep the car ahead of time. ie. tire pressure, brakes, etc. He practiced this, maybe on a Sunday. Some of those moves are stunt car driver moves. Either they taught him, or did the slides themselves. No helmets? EMTs nearby and ready. Too much at stake to do this on the fly.

If this was CG it would be fake. It’s just a well choreographed prank. [Sic]

And you don’t need to pore through discussion-board comments from self-appointed experts to realize how widely this stunt was taken at face value. Within a day, the internet was full of news stories and bylined commentaries reporting the “test drive” as if it were a real prank pulled on a real person with a real NASCAR star behind the wheel.

A week later, the truth is easier to come by. A Pepsi spokesperson has refused to comment on whether the “salesman” was an actor. Jeff Gordon has admitted that a stunt driver was used, although he thinks he “could have pulled off 90 percent of it.” And commenters have noted the video’s many anomalies, often providing freeze-frame evidence.

Of course, all this debunking has only drawn more attention to the video. No doubt, that’s just fine with the marketing teams from PepsiCo, Chevrolet and NASCAR as they keep tabs on all the hits they continue to get. Jeff Gordon, for his part, seems proud of his acting debut: “I have never been a part of anything like this, a viral video that has gone to this level. … I never dreamed that this would [have so many] views and get this much attention.” No second thoughts, apparently, about deceiving his fans – just as long as the attention engine keeps running.

If anyone in the media has offered an apology for their credulous reporting, I haven’t seen it. As John Dvorak has noted, they don’t even seem to realize they’re providing “free promotion for Pepsi, Chevy and Gordon” in the guise of news, even as their advertising revenues implode. As for the general public, the typical online comment from viewers willing to admit the ad was staged runs something like, “So what if it’s fake? It’s still hilarious!”

And all of this has me wondering: Is there any obligation for marketing to be truthful, at least beyond specific product claims? Are we OK with being deceived from the first frame to the last, as long as we’ve been entertained? If we were to learn that Felix Baumgartner’s skydive from 128,100 feet had never actually happened, would we just say, “So what if it’s fake? It’s still awesome!” and remind ourselves to stock up on plenty of Red Bull? Are hits more important than facts?

Many people in marketing, maybe even most, would answer, “Of course!” But I’m not so sure. Maybe it’s because I’m in B2B, where sincerity seems to be valued higher than in B2C. Still, I can’t help but wonder whether advertisers do a disservice to brands by routinely privileging entertainment over truth.

Learning the joke’s on them, can people be forever counted upon to say, along with “Steve” the car salesman, “Wanna do it again?”