Back in 2007, Andrew Denton had a brilliant TV moment while giving broadcaster John Laws — who was just about to retire — a farewell grilling on Enough Rope.
For much of the interview, Laws had managed to brush off the tough stuff, including the usual questions about the inquiry into his undeclared plugs for sponsors. As usual, he refused to see that he had done anything wrong.
But more than a year after that interview, what still sticks in the mind, long after Laws’s explanations have faded, was how Denton put it to him in the final moments of their confrontation: "I don’t get what you don’t get about Cash for Comments".
In one sentence, it showed that not only were the two sides of the debate on transparency with the public never going to agree — they weren’t even going to understand each other’s points of view.
The last couple of weeks have felt a little like that, as the advertising agencies at the centre of two prominent media hoaxes seem unable to understand why their critics are outraged.
The first hoax, which my webiste Mumbrella exposed, was designed by ad agency Cummins Nitro Brisbane on behalf of their client, Tourism Queensland.
It was a brilliant idea: call for video applications for "the best job in the world" as caretaker of the islands of the Great Barrier Reef. The first video entry to be uploaded on the site featured "Tegan", who excitedly announced to the camera that she was off to get a tattoo of the Great Barrier Reef on her arm to improve her chances of getting the job.
Tegan quickly became news. In its report, AAP referred to the video with the qualifier that she "appeared" to be getting a tattoo. By the time it had gone around the world, however, that qualification had vanished. The tattoo made it into headlines and intros in newspapers and on websites across the globe.
Over at Mumbrella, we were suspicious from the beginning — Tegan was not the world’s best actor. And as the tattoo story continued to generate headlines, I rang Tourism Queensland’s communications office.
The press officer seemed slightly surprised to hear from me. No, of course Tegan wasn’t an actress. She worked for the advertising agency. The fact that this may have been a tad deceptive did not seem to occur to them.
Why hadn’t the journalists who reported the story bothered to make this call?
It was the same from the boss of the agency. He happily gave me the name of the girl in the video — it was Rhiannon Craig. Until we published this story and Queensland Treasurer Andrew Fraser announced that he took a "dim view" of the behaviour, it didn’t appear to have occurred to those behind it that they were doing anything wrong. Nor, it seems, had it occurred to the media organisations to call these easily accessed sources for verification.
Cummins Nitro has since issued an apology saying the fake video entry was supposed to be an example of the kind of entry that could be submitted.
By the following weekend, it was another girl and another video. This time, "Heidi" was appealing on YouTube for the man of her dreams who had supposedly left his soon-to-be-released Witchery jacket in a cafe and she wanted to return it to him.
Once again, it was her poor acting that gave her away. Almost from the start, the press were asking if she was an actress. She denied it. And when people began to get an idea which agency was behind the stunt — Sydney-based Naked Communications — the agency denied it was a stunt too.
But the pressure began to mount as a vocal section of the marketing community heaped opprobrium on Naked for behaving so deceitfully.
As marketer Tim Longhurst put it: "Being socially destructive — eroding people’s confidence in each other — isn’t a simple by-product of this kind of dishonest marketing, it’s the main outcome."
Nick Ellery had a similar take: "The line is to be drawn when you deliberately try to deceive your audience, with no real intention to cause dialogue, but simply to deceive in order to create traffic. This is no different to spamming. It sucks that this campaign is proceeding and that I will never buy anything from Witchery Man, or hire Naked as a strategy firm."
Yet Naked continued to insist they had done nothing wrong. In a great example of marketese, Managing partner Adam Ferrier told me: "If it gets to the point where you have to be 100 per cent truthful the whole time, it becomes a very sterile outcome. People will be afraid to try different things."
Naked argues that the press brought the embarrassment upon itself, and it has now upped the stakes by publishing a full page ad in The Australian‘s Wish magazine listing the journalists and media that it fooled with its girl-with-the-jacket-hoax. The ad features a photo of "Heidi" and carries the headline: "Witcheryman would like to thank everyone who helped us spread the word". As well as the mainstream media outlets that covered the controversy, it names two journalists — Caroline Marcus of Fairfax’s Sun Herald and Marnie O’Neill of the Sunday Telegraph.
Marcus, who was the first journalist to report the fake story as fact, has called the hoax "journalistic fraud". She told newmatilda.com:
"Of course as journalists, we are always alert to the spin tactics used by marketing companies. However, in my experience, it is unusual for such companies to outright lie at every opportunity. It would become a real shame if the marketing industry felt that this type of journalistic fraud was acceptable. If the CEOs of Naked Communications and Witchery think that the media will forgive and forget being lied to, then the biggest joke is on them."
Of course, Naked Communications disagrees. After the stunt the agency commissioned some research which apparently found that only 21 per cent of their target audience found the stunt offensive or deceptive. According to Naked, this was a good result.
Personally, I don’t get what it is that they don’t get.
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