When the suits behind carpe diem flick “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” set out to shoot ads for their forthcoming movie, they approached YouTube producer Casey Neistat and asked him to shoot a video about “chasing a dream.”
Neistat made a counter-pitch: He’d shoot them a video, but it would follow him as he donated Fox’s ad budget to typhoon survivors in the Philippines. True to his word, Neistat flew to Manila and used $25,000 on food and other basic supplies. The resulting seven-minute video, which went online last night, is about as uplifting as that Jose Gonzalez song that plays in the “Walter Mitty” trailer. (Which is to say, uplifting enough to make you forget you’re actually watching an ad.)
Savvy marketers have taken to this feel-good, pseudo-PSA phenomenon. Dove has built its entire “Real Beauty” empire on them. Special K recently came out with a teary, hidden-camera-style ad in which women at a clothing boutique realize they have unhealthy body images and vow to change. That’s a wonderful message for women — but it comes from a company that’s trying to sell 90-calorie granola bars to ladies who want to lose weight. The message and the profit motive are diametrically opposed.
Neistat’s video isn’t quite the same animal, but it is yet another ad masquerading as a PSA. And the pretense, in this case, is pretty convincing. “This Man Blew the Ad Budget For ‘The Secret Life of Walter Mitty’ on Disaster Relief,” reads the headline on Digg, which isn’t really true at all — Fox willingly gave Neistat the money, and he willingly made them an ad, because some smart executives recognized a good branding opportunity when they saw it. If a mammoth entertainment conglomerate truly wanted to help the victims of a natural disaster, this was quite possibly the least efficient way to do it.
To be clear, none of this makes Neistat any less heroic for jetting into the Philippines and handing out supplies in a disaster zone. And Fox, for its part, has drawn lots of eyeballs to typhoon survivors who really need the attention.
But acting like this video is anything besides a brilliant ad is both dishonest and terribly naive. It’s also kind of risky. Neistat may just be peddling movies, and Dove may just be hyping soap — but if you don’t realize someone’s selling you something, you’ll buy anything, right?