On June 7th a video was posted to YouTube. A link to it reached the front page of Reddit. Then it was spread on Twitter and elsewhere, garnering about a half a million views in its first couple of days online. This video claims to show a mishap at a Shell Oil Company public relations gathering in Seattle’s Space Needle. It doesn’t really. There was no such gathering.

An Activist Farce

The video was a hoax attributed to Greenpeace in collaboration with Yes Lab, a progressive media consulting firm.  It was aimed at protesting Shell’s launch of a new drilling operation in offshore Alaska. The fake PR event was placed in Seattle because that is where the oil rigs Kulluk and Noble Discoverer were docked awaiting deployment to the Arctic.

In the video, which runs just over one minute, an elderly woman stands before a small model of one of the rigs, which is apparently supposed to dispense water for the guests. She holds a cup beneath it, but the rig malfunctions, spraying her with brown liquid while the supposed-Shell representatives struggle to turn it off and contain the fluid.

As a hoax, this video and the false press release accompanying it were so successful several media organizations had taken it as genuine and had to run corrections. Watching the video, it’s easy to see why. Those responsible did a masterful job with this bit of online guerilla advertising for their cause.

Thoughtfully Made

The video was shot on a cell phone camera, and is so distant and choppy that it gives the definite impression the person responsible was not expecting what happened. So right from the start, the video looks like any other real video its audience has seen posted online in the past. It doesn’t appear to be contrived, but in this case, that’s because it actually was contrived, but extraordinarily well.

Additionally, after the supposed mishap, the video shows men approach the cameraman, stay just out of frame, and try to suppress the footage. Had it been real, that would have been immediately appealing to many viewers who would get the impression they had gained access to something powerful people hadn’t wanted them to see.

Even their choice of casting seems highly deliberate. The use of an elderly woman as the would-be victim appeals to two distinct audiences. It generates the greatest amount of sympathy while also appealing to the darker side of the viewership by letting people laugh, in the privacy of their own homes, at an instance of embarrassment that would be inappropriate to laugh at in person.

Not Fair Play

Really, the only thing Greenpeace and Yes Lab did wrong was making this video in the first place. It’s a terrifically skillful hoax, but still it is a hoax, which is really just another way of saying “elaborate lie.”

This sort of thing strives less to make a point about the environmentalist cause and more to try to sabotage the image of the company that’s on the other side of the issue.

This kind of thing can definitely gain attention, but it gains attention for reasons other than what was intended.  And it’s not fair play any more than it would be for Shell, with its considerable advertising resources, to mock up a video that shows Greenpeace boats lost in Alaska and attacking a Whittier shuttle.

You can build yourself up or tarnish the image of your competition on the basis of things that you or they have actually done, but it’s irresponsible use of mass media to implant fantasies about your competition in the minds of consumers or voters.

Shell wouldn’t be able to get away with, say, claiming they gave free oil from their offshore Alaska drilling operation to Anchorage tours or other players in the local economy, unless that were actually true. Greenpeace shouldn’t be able to get away with pretending that Shell doused an old woman with petroleum just because they knew it would get them more page views.