The brand hoaxers are coming – are you prepared?

Victorias Secret No Means No

From pranksters on Facebook pretending to be from Jetstar to the spoof Greenpeace website, brands are falling victim to identity theft. And there’s not much they can do about it, argues Cathie McGinn

In his last novel, Dostoyevsky wrote: “a disturbance in one place is felt at the other end of the world.”

Which is why when I’d stopped laughing at the recent Victoria’s Secret “Pink Loves Consent” hoax, I put aside my sense of schadenfreude – Victoria’s Secret not being one of my favourite brands in the world – and considered what hoaxes and spoofs as sophisticated as this one might mean for brands.

Victorias Secret Loves ConsentVictoria Secret spoofIn case you missed it, Gawker’s female-focused blog Jezebel reports being sent a press release promoting US supermodel-studded lingerie line Victoria’s Secret’s new range of “anti rape” knickers. Jezebel editors being cynical types, the hoax took a mere couple of moments to be uncovered, but the writer exclaims at the thoroughness with which the hoax has been executed – with copyright notices from VS, logos and branding along with links through to social profiles, from Instagram to Pinterest, all displayed on the campaign site.

It used to be enough to register a couple of spare domains, the ‘yourbrandsucks’ domain variants, and to sign up social media profiles simply to protect against someone else picking them up.

But what recent high profile examples like Greenpeace’s attack on oil corporation Shell with the spoof website “Arctic Ready”  and Victoria’s Secret demonstrate is that protecting your brand has become a lot more complex, begging the question, are brands becoming indefensible?

The Arctic Ready site – featuring an interactive game for kids called “Angry Bergs”, a lot of highly inflammatory copy pertaining to be by the brand and the ability to make your own “Arctic ready” advertising campaign poster – has been live since July. Perhaps having learned from the Streisand Effect (a term coined to describe the way attempting to suppress something online gives it far more publicity), Shell has taken no legal action, but the site continues to confuse the public and journalists alike.Shell hoax arctic fox

Most troubling still is the fact that while in the Greenpeace and Victoria’s Secret examples, complex digital executions were created by established activists, fairly convincing fake brand profiles are also being created by individual pranksters with enough time and ingenuity on their hands to be a serious headache for the brand and community manager.

A recent – and to my mind, rather amusingly done – example is a phony Facebook Jetsar account responding to complaints on the official Jetstar page.

Jetstar hoax

To give credit where it’s due, Jetstar handled the situation very well, and responded promptly by blocking the account and posting an explanation, but for those individuals incredulously reading what seemed like an officially mandated “fuck you”, the damage may have been done.

The fact is that anyone can create what appears to be a convincing mesh of interconnected fake brand profiles with only a right click and a WiFi IP address. The internet means that misconceptions, confusion and bald-faced lies can spread unchecked, like a plague. From the Facebook privacy scam to the Nigerian inheritance email, we’re so bombarded by information our bullshit detectors have got a little wonky.

And it’s not just the amateurs. Perhaps it’s a consequence of shorter news cycles and a need to be first with stories, the declining standard of journalism or because the sky is falling, but whatever the cause, the effect is that even the traditional gatekeepers of fact, journalists, are falling for a well pulled together hoax all too often. A fine example is Apple’s asymetric screw – a hoax created by Swedish smartarses Day4 which had blogs and newspapers falling over themselves to report in breathless excitement.

Your faithful scribe has even tripped up a couple of times herself. To be perfectly frank, the more we want to believe something – knowing it will make a great headline or amuse our friends on Twitter – the less likely we are to scrutinise it too deeply. I don’t see a more rigorous approach to fact checking becoming part of most people’s online behaviour any time soon. If it’s not your reputation at stake, truth or fiction seems somewhat irrelevant, as long as it’s a good yarn.

Perhaps all browsers should come with a disclaimer: abandon truth all ye who enter here. But the next time you’re sniggering over another brand’s misfortune, consider what impact those disturbances could have in your part of the world.


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