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Truth or illusion: What's real on YouTube?

Where does a home video end and advertising begin? YouTube confronts visitors with the disturbing possibility that the video they're watching may not be a home video at all, but a sophisticated ad campaign...

A single homemade YouTube video can receive millions of visitors a day, so it's little surprise that advertisers are keen to exploit the site. This presents a unique problem though: how can an advertiser attach itself to video content that is inherently independent, user-generated and unendorsed?

This month, the answer seems to have finally occurred to the advertising industry. Instead of sponsoring easily ignored advertising on the page around YouTube videos, advertisers have taken to manipulating the videos themselves.

Over the past few weeks, visitors have flocked to home videos by a YouTube user known as Lonelygirl15. Her pretty smile and endearing accounts of her life drew many millions of visitors, inspired hundreds of fan sites and set the Internet buzzing with interest. But soon viewers became suspicious. The high quality of video lighting, slick editing and lack of copyrighted music led to accusations that Lonelygirl15 was a hoaxer.

Last week, the Lonelygirl15 videos were indeed exposed as a hoax. The girl depicted was an aspiring actress named Jessica Rose. She subsequently discussed the videos on CNN, The Tonight Show and MTV -- not bad exposure for a previous unknown. The creators of the video were revealed to be film professionals who describe their efforts as a "new art form".

These filmmakers are misguided though -- this isn't art, it's deception for profit. Misrepresenting commercials as independent user-generated content, actors as members of the public, and fiction as fact is not art, it's advertising. The Lonelygirl15 videos were created for the explicit purpose of promoting a product, in this case the actress Jessica Rose.

With Lonelygirl15 the deception seems to have been relatively innocuous: the aim was self-promotion, not the subliminal exhibition of the autumn Gap range. But it makes you wonder what's next. The Internet is notoriously untrustworthy as an information medium, but what appears to be independent user content is generally accepted at face value. At the very least we assume that it's really little Johnny from Utah play-fighting a lightsaber battle with broom handles and not a viral marketing campaign for Lucasfilm.

For companies with massive advertising budgets and a pressing need to engage with an increasingly cynical audience, the Lonelygirl15 advertising model is irresistible. Television advertising, try though it might, finds it harder to overcome the delineation between programming and advertising. We have 'commercial breaks' and the majority of us understand when we're being sold to. But when advertisers mimic the user-generated content on YouTube to promote their products, none of these rules apply.

Subliminal product placement and promotion on YouTube is one thing, but it's beginning to look like the site has given rise to an entirely new and vicious form of trench warfare between competing brands. This new format, dubbed the smear-video, depicts a rival brand's product exhibiting fictitious faults.

Because of the anonymous nature of YouTube, a smear-video can rarely be proven to have originated with a rival brand. The video will appear to show a product exhibiting a fault at the hands of a genuine user, but will in fact be a carefully scripted and executed fraud. Take the 21-second YouTube video entitled 'Samsung handset, easy to break at one try!', which showed a smiling woman snapping a Samsung Ultra Edition mobile phone in two. According to some reports, Samsung says the phone must have been artificially rigged to snap. The video has now been removed from YouTube. Whose agenda does this video serve?

Interestingly, William Gibson predicted these kinds of corporate video manipulations in his book Pattern Recognition. Gibson's 2003 novel describes an advertising exec who is desperate to hunt down and capitalise on an artist whose quirky Internet videos have gained huge popularity. The modern reality is worse than Gibson's vision -- it seems a corporation won't even need to track down an artist when it can provide an absolutely convincing simulacrum of independent user-generated video.

Self-promotion is not a new concept and advertisers have always used actors staging 'customer testimonies' to promote their brands. Most TV advertisements depict a fictitious customer expressing what appears to be their genuinely held belief in the endorsement of a product. But with YouTube we now have to deal with endorsement videos without being given any contextual clue that we're watching an advertisement.

There's no litmus test for genuine user-generated videos on YouTube. So, next time you watch a video of a kid setting his trousers on fire, take a moment to think about whether those Nike Airs he's wearing came from his shoe cupboard, or from the costume department lurking just offscreen. - Chris Stevens