Another day, another Internet scandal. The latest came to light last week when the Wall Street Journal broke the story that 24 year old singer and guitarist named Marie Digby wasn't a home-grown, girl-next-door, You-Tube wonder after all. Turns out Hollywood Records had signed Ms. Digby in 2005, 18 months before she became a You-tube phenomenon, and according to the Journal orchestrated a grass-roots scheme to get her "discovered" online. Ms. Digby played along, once writing in MySpace, "I NEVER in a million years thought that doing my little video of Umbrella in my living room would led to this--tv shows, itunes, etc!!"
The singer's supporters are crying foul, claiming the Journal blew the story out of proportion (See the billboard.com writer's rebuttal and Ms. Digby's angry response here). They also point out how hard it is for a no-name to get any attention from the big labels; most slave away in obscurity for a lifetime--so, hey, what if she did do a little fibbing?
But in any case, it's pretty clear the innocent online "staging" was more than an accident.
These schemes are hardly new.
Last year "LonelyGirl15" was revealed to be a 19-year-old actress working with a professional creative agency. There was the Walmart scam earlier and--why not throw this one in?-- the former chairman of Whole Foods writing for years on financial bulletin boards, berating his competition and praising his own company...all under an alias name.
And before we start beating up on these people, it's worth noting companies have indulged in sneaky PR and marketing tactics for years. They even had a clever name for it, guerrilla marketing.
Now it's moved to the social media scene. Here you have a big company behind this, and according to the Journal, several media outlets played along; one radio station claimed they found her on YouTube. Clearly the Big Guys want to get in on the viral revolution that's changing how the teens and 20-somethings buy their entertainment. And everyone loves the idea that you can come out of nowhere and get famous, the American Idol mentality. It just feels better than knowing a star has been groomed and scripted to death like a politician.
It'll be interesting to see how this pans out, if dozens of other media concerns and other non-media companies try similar scams. If so it'll only feed the cynicism already there--what can you really believe on the web?--and create a heightened awareness among the younger consumers. In the end, it could backfire if social media users refuse to buy into anything; these type of gimmicks will generate about as much trust as the old TV commercials for Tide detergent or Allstate insurance ("You're in good hands with allstate"). Maybe things do come full circle after all.