For a few weeks, an Australian study created some waves because it talked about teenagers who are “text addicts” and suffer from a range of serious mental and physical disorders. NTNews writes:

“The study – which was conducted out of RMIT University in Melbourne – has suggested that the mobile telephone has become “meshed” into the everday lives of teenagers.

Jeannie Carroll, a technology researcher from the Melbourne University who has been conducting the study since 2001, says texting is a major part of teenage lives.

“Texting is quite tribal – it is just what teenagers do with phones,” she said. Ms. Carroll said her study had shown a pattern of behaviour easy to classify into four groups:

Textaphrenia: thinking you’ve heard a message come in or felt the device vibrate when it actually hasn’t.

Textiety: the anxious feeling of not receiving any texts or not being able to send any.

Post-traumatic text disorder: physical and mental injuries related to texting, like walking into obstacles and crossing roads blindly – all while texting.

Binge texting: teenagers sending multiple texts to feel good about themselves and trying to attract responses.”

While the study made no waves, it was picked up as story everywhere in Australia and Asia: Here, here, here, here, here, here, here and I could go on to link to 6,940 results. The original press release can be downloaded here.

Problem is, the press release and its content is a hoax and part of a marketing campaign for Boost Mobile. There was a study about youth mobile behavior, conducted by Shari Walsh in 2008, but the study never talks about addiction or mental disorders. The aforementioned Jennie Carroll went further and gave interviews but quickly distanced herself from the disorder names (invented by Boost Mobile) when the scam was finally called out by various Australian publications.

Clearly, the campaign can be called clever. It used the weakness of central-hub-plagiarism based news media to get major exposure for a campaign. Boost Mobile and their agency, TCO (The Conscience Organization), created these “disorders” first, turned it into an ad campaign, supported through academia and then a story was woven to support the advertising campaign.

The ads are clearly a spoof, the URL textaholics.com.au links out to their Facebook page.

Well, I could talk about the state of journalism for the next few hours but I will spare you that. Instead, let’s talk about the overall marketing campaign

  • No matter how you slice it, it is unethical to create “disorders” and then promote them in media. Not everybody is a media cynic. People actually do believe what is written or said on TV/Radio.
  • A total failure as a comprehensive marketing campaign. Once you see the ads, you should understand that everything said is just advertising. But, if you see the news reports alone, you might think this is for real.
  • Boost Mobile wanted to target teenagers. I’m sure they achieved that goal. As an unintended consequence, they alarmed parents. I would love to find out how many teenagers caught grief from their parents because of the news reports.
  • The PR agency sent out the press release fully aware that the media may just be unethical or lazy enough to run it. Being unethical by exploiting unethical media. And the consumer was the loser. Once again.
  • The campaign didn’t make sense: Ok, so you are ‘suffering’ from this disorder and your cure is cheaper texting? I’m an alcoholic and the cure is cheap whisky? They should have done the opposite, claiming texting makes your life better, releases happy hormones, whatever. And Boost Mobile makes it affordable to feel better.

Lessons learned

  • Unethical marketing doesn’t pay off. I know, this is more of a gray area but still, the press release didn’t mention an ad campaign, tried to use a weakness of media. What will happen next time the agencies and Boost Mobile issue a press release. Is anyone going to believe them?
  • If you create an integrated campaign, better integrate your agencies first. It’s pretty obvious that PR and ad agency didn’t work together. The press release has a different tonality than the advertising campaign. It almost feels like we’re talking about 2 different brands. Did both agencies deliver independent solutions to one Creative Brief? Very possible.
  • Consider unintended consequences. Parents are by nature protective. News reports about texting mental disorders might convince parents to take that cell phone away. Not really the goal of a campaign for text service, right?
  • Short-Term Gain often results in Long-Term Pain. Your short-term stunts often end with crashes and negative long-term effects for your brand. Consider that before you race down that ramp like Evel Knievel. You might just crash and burn.
  • Transparency equals trust. When you create a transmedia spoof campaign be open about it. That doesn’t mean you have to reveal everything upfront. It means, make it obvious to anyone it’s a spoof. Make it outrageous. Make it funny. And make it so transparent, even a grandmother gets it.

What do you think? Am I too harsh? I’ve read a few comments from Australia and the industry folks were mostly impressed with the campaign. Are you?