Bike Hero, Viral Success or Ethical Failure?

This video splashed onto Youtube last week and with 1.5 million hits so far, it’s already gone certifiably viral:

“Bike Hero” was a hit for many reasons, but especially with the fans of Guitar Hero and Rock Band, who were the perfect demographic. The concept was just off the wall and fun. I mean, they brought this beloved video game out into the real world, and on a bike nonetheless – what Guitar Hero fan wouldn’t want to see that?

What really made it work for me was the meticulous attention to detail. Every single element in the game was faithfully re-produced, including the high score pop-ups and the blue tinted “star power” mode. These details were definitely not lost on the fans.

But what resonated the most with the Guitar Hero heads was the sheer homebrew outrageousness of it all. To think, these random guys who are just like me, put in all those hours and went all out for no greater reward than pure, creative fulfillment…er, wait a second.

Turns out that Bike Hero was not created by ‘Madflux’, a McDonald’s fryer, but instead was helmed by Aussie ad agency Droga5 (you may remember them from their last viral hit, Mark Ecko tagging Air Force One).

Since the public outing, the backlash has grown intense with many debating the ethics of an agency posing as a regular ol’ Youtuber.

Derek Powazek writes:

It’s not that it’s a commercial, it’s that it’s a hidden commercial. It’s not the art, it’s the ruse. …One thing pretending to be another is always a betrayal of trust.

Courtney says:

It has value as entertainment, but making people think their peers made something wonderful instead of that something being produced out of a vast amount of money invested in market research to turn a profit off kids like me just makes me feel used and sad.

I didn’t have such a strong reaction, but it’s easy to see why so many others did.  People hate being manipulated. No one likes being tricked, especially in this Youtube day and age where authenticity is so highly valued.  These days, slick production quality takes a backseat to genuine and authentic content – which is what Bike Hero was trying to pass for.

So ethics aside, is the video still as enjoyable without the do-it-yourself authenticity? Does it detract from its value when you find out it’s not made by a rag-tag group of Guitar Hero fans?

Ze Frank says:

in the description on youtube – the poster said “you have no idea how many times it took to do this” – for me, imagining this sequence of events is as much part of the piece as is the final video, and there is a jarring effect when i have to include a catering truck, a gaffer into that imagined story

As for me personally, I watched the video for the first time knowing this was an advert but I still dug it.  Whether it was made by a company or a kid, the original idea is still creative as hell and don’t try to tell me that this didn’t take a lot of effort. People definitely lost sleep trying to pull this off.

So at this point, I’m starting to wonder how much of a difference authenticity would’ve made for me.  And that’s when I came across Youtube star Freddie Wong’s response video:

Wait, did that crazy kid just attach a TV to the back of a truck and play Guitar Hero while riding a bike hands-free? How many times did he fall? How many people in the street watched him fly by and had no idea what they just saw?  This is why I love the internet!

And that’s when I realized how authenticity still plays a huge role for me. I still think Bike Hero is a fun piece, but knowing that it was produced by an agency with a budget…let’s just say I wouldn’t forward Bike Hero, but I’d send out Freddie Wong’s video with a “can you believe what this guy did?”

Our Youtube generation find something special in these homemade videos that you could imagine yourself (or your more talented and insane friend) doing, from dancing on treadmills to taking a self-photo every day for 6 years.  In the land of Youtube, you don’t need multimillion dollar budgets and CGI teams to create standout video content. Here, creativity is only limited by how far you’re willing to take it.

And controversy always erupts over pseudo authentic works like Bike Hero because it challenges the Youtube-like belief that anyone, not just the paid professionals, can find an audience. For the Youtube generation, which I’m a proud part of, we hate to see anything chip away at our belief of a level creative playing field. That, combined with our generations’ hyper-sensitivity to being manipulated (especially at the hand of the corporate world) explains exactly why more than a few people are so irked about being “had”.

So from a marketing standpoint, was it worth it? The backlash from those who found out they’ve been tricked has come back doubly strong.  And there’s possible damage to the Guitar Hero brand being painted as not just try-hard and out of touch, but also as disrespectful to the fans. Judging by the video comments and the discussions in the blogosphere, some people seemed genuinely pissed off, and pissing off your customer base is not usually a good idea.

On the flip side, they did get over 1.5 million hits in a week specifically targeting the Guitar Hero and Rock Band fans, letting them all know there’s a new Guitar Hero game out, while getting their song stuck in our heads. And how many of those viewers actually cared enough to be offended, or even found out it was “fake” in the first place?  The controversy might’ve also stirred the pot in a good way, getting bloggers (like me) and Youtubers like Freddie to link even more people back to the original.

So did Droga5 and Activision score a win? Or should they just stick to Heidi Klum jamming in her skivvies? My thoughts: the staggering number of hits probably made Bike Hero worth the gamble, but from now on they should tread lightly, respect the fans, and just hire Freddie Wong to make their next viral.