Why Do Companies Create Anonymous Videos on YouTube?

I’m currently writing the chapter on YouTube in our forthcoming social media marketing book. I’m puzzling over a pretty basic phenomenon of the new media world: the stealth marketing video. Common examples include:

The process usually goes like this: These videos are posted with only obscure or oblique references to the brands they’re promoting. They’re remarkable and amazing feats (either real or CGI) make then viral hits on YouTube. Sooner or later, the companies behind them disclose the videos’ true origins.

What Do The Brands Stand To Gain?

As in the case of the Cardo Systems video, the company sometimes replaces the video with a new one promoting their brand. Alternately, as in the Ray-ban video, they add a link to their website.

However, in other cases–Levis and Guitar Hero–there’s still no indication on the video page that the video isn’t a legitimate, user-generated and unaffiliated with a corporation.

So why bother? The only tangible, measurable result that I can think of is the free media the companies earn when they go public with the revelation. Of course, this only pays off if the video itself is a success. How many of these corporate stealth videos never get revealed because they only received 8700 views?

There’s considerable value in that earned media. However, this article indicates that “Bike Hero” required four weeks worth of production by an ad agency. That’s quite an expense for what I imagine to be fairly middling media exposure.

As far as I can figure, there isn’t much of a brand awareness gain. After all, the videos usually don’t promote specific brands–that only appears in the subsequent media coverage. And “Bike Hero” isn’t effective unless you’re already familiar with Guitar Hero, the game.

There’s also the question of possible damage to the brand when it’s revealed that the videos are, in fact, from lame corporations. I don’t think that matters very much in the fluid world of YouTube, but it’s worth considering.

So what else do these brands stand to gain?


  1. There are a couple ways to look at it. One is that the lack of overt branding makes the content more readily shared without introducing doubt over whether one is being used as a shill. Another is that the content will appear more genuine and independent, a spontaneous endorsement without the need for a gimmick like a hidden camera test.

    If someone likes an unbranded ad or series of ads enough to find out who makes them or what brand is used in the ad, there is the JJ Abrams mystery box satisfaction, where a person gets a charge out of making the discovery. In effect, they’ve sought out the brand and an association between the satisfaction of solving the mystery and the brand is forged.

    Personally, I find unbranded video a risky social media strategy. While they may get some great short-term traction, they’re almost always discovered to be produced, and I have doubts about what this does for long-term trust in the brand. But I might be too curmudgeonly to be in the audience those ads are designed for.

    Note I say ad rather than video, as I don’t believe that any content produced for a brand can be anything other than an ad. See above re. curmudgeon 🙂

  2. Interestingly, there’s an article at Slate today that talks not about unbranded ads, but on their damaging repetition on the web. Great take-away quote for anyone who keeps trying to think about how to ‘go viral’: It’s not important how many people see your ad, but how many people like your ad.

    Amen to that.

  3. Some of the videos are great, but misrepresentation is just lame, in my opinion.

    If it’s a “user generated effect” that they’re going for, then they should be encouraging their fans to submit genuine fan videos. Some of these rules and etiquette are still being written, but I think time will prove this type of promotion will be dismissed as manipulative and slimy. There can only be so many Lonelygirl15s before we lose our patience with this stuff and start calling bullshit.

    In fact, Activision’s response to the Bike Hero ad, that the ruse was purposeful (see JJ Abrams reference by Tod) just reeks of weak cover-up.

    I couldn’t resist adding another to the list above Darren- eventually found to be an ad for Gatorade, shot live at a real minor league ball game and CGd later: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hvmlp2QPfsE

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