Something rotten in the Fred/ Zipit Campaign [PR Gone Bad]

Zipit, the sponsors of the YouTube phenomena of Fred (our coverage) are attempting to place positive stories about their product and Fred on blogs, casting a long shadow over the entire Fred success story.

I get a fair amount of email from PR representatives, and often they ask for permission to send through media releases. I usually don’t pay a lot of attention to them, and usually respond with a yes, after all you can always not run the story.

July 26 I received this email

from Michael Abehsera
to duncan
date Sun, Jul 27, 2008 at 7:52 AM
subject News Tip from Zipit wireless and Fred from youtube

Hey what’s up?

I am part of the Zipit/Fred team, were are in the works to writing something really cool, we really liked your post about Fred we think that its really amazing the whole success behind Fred, I would like to send you guys the article that were writing and we will really appreciate it if you can consider it to be featured on your great blog:)

Regards,
Have a great day
Michael


Honestly all I saw was send something, not “I would like to send you guys the article that were writing and we will really appreciate it if you can consider it to be featured on your great blog” so I responded:

from Duncan Riley
to Michael Abehsera
date Sun, Jul 27, 2008 at 10:13 AM
subject Re: News Tip from Zipit wireless and Fred from youtube

Happy to take a look.

In return August 8:

from Michael Abehsera
to Duncan Riley
date Fri, Aug 8, 2008 at 11:39 AM
subject Re: News Tip from Zipit wireless and Fred from youtube
signed-by gmail.com
[Fred Blog CopyRevised.doc]

Thank you:)
I attached the article, please tell me wha you think if you post it on the blog please send me the link so we can help you promote it, thanks.

Have a great day.

Regards,

The lack of spell check and signature is perhaps geared towards making the approach less formal, but it’s when I read this email today that the text caught my attention: “the article”…”post it on the blog.”

Here’s what they wanted me to post. In some ways by printing it they’ve probably won, but you can’t highlight the issue without showing the facts:

FUELED BY FRED, KIDS WANT A ZIPIT!

What’s a Zipit, and who the heck is Fred? If you’re a bona fide grown up, chances are you’ve probably never heard of Fred. (Or a Zipit, for that matter). But go ask your kids, they’ll tell you. They might even howl one of Fred’s signature lines, like “That’s so hackin’ cool!”

Fred (real name Lucas Cruikshank) is a slightly awkward 14 year old from small town Nebraska, whose character, a high-pitched, hyperactive six year old “with anger management issues” happens to be one of the biggest sensations ever to hit YouTube. Fred’s (er, Lucas’) self-shot amateurish videos have received over 50 million views – more than Miley Cyrus or the Jonas Brothers.

Recently, this online phenomenon teamed up with a company called Zipit Wireless, makers of a handheld WiFi Messaging device for teens and tweens. Fred can be seen IMing on his Zipit in several of his videos including, “Fred on Valentine’s Day” and “Fred Goes Swimming.” Now Fred has helped this under-the-radar brand become a wanted property with Fred fanatics around the world. “I want Zipit!” “Where can I get a Zipit!” “I luv my Zipit!” shout fans wildly on his comments page. Over half a million Fred followers visited a FredonZipit.com website last month alone, and tens of thousands sent a personalized Fred video message to none-other-than mom and dad, having himself Fred explain to them why they wanted a Zipit.

And if you think that Fred’s YouTube followers reacted negatively to his new spokeskid status, think again. They cheered him on. Careful not to alienate Fred loyalists, Zipit Wireless (through their ad agency WOO Agency), were careful not to sell Fred out, but rather stay true to his original character and formula. And after all, Fred wasn’t pitching another new breakfast cereal — the Zipit is actually a pretty cool device – one ironically parents love as much as kids. The Zipit lets tweenagers IM and text without racking up outrageous texting overage charges. Parents can set texting limits and curfews, and the device also offers built-in protection against messages from strangers.

So now that Fred helped get the message out on this new messaging device kids went crazy for, everything should have been cake, right? Wrong. Problem was, parents initially stumbled over the $149.99 retail price. Parents wrote in to zipitwireless.com, and kids sent messages to Fred’s IM account on his Zipit, asking to reduce the price. Wanting to keep Fred fans happy, Zipit Wireless took the feedback to heart and lowered the price to $49.99, while establishing an affordable monthly service platform that consumers are familiar with. For a flat rate of $9.99 per month, Users get unlimited IM & texting, and there are no hidden fees or overages, ever. Fred even nonchalantly mentions it in one of his videos, “Fred Goes Swimming,” angry that Kevin (his arch 1st grade nemesis) now spent less money on his Zipit than his mom did. Pretty hackin cool.

The Zipit Z2 is sold at zipitwireless.com, Target.com and BestBuy.com, and is available in select Target and Best Buy stores.

I have no idea how many blogs they’ve pitched this to, but I found two sites that have run the exact text sent to me.

I’m not opposed to PR hacks sending press releases and what ever else they feel is necessary to support the company they are trying to pitch, but this crosses the line. Trying to get bloggers to post your propaganda in return for a promise of promotion cheapens the PR profession.

But what would they give in return, and is this indeed a legitimate pitch? Lets start with the name: Michael Abehsera. Gmail account and name of a published author, with no mention I could find of the name being tied to Zipit. However, the President of WOO Agency, the company being employed to promote Zipit: David Abehsera, according to the LA Times. Coincidence? unlikely. A relative perhaps?

A search for Michael Abehsera led me to Digg, and a profile page that includes links to other sites including a workplace listed as (and I’m not making this up) the YOO Agency. He also claims to be “in charge of Social Media at Zoopri.”

It would appear at least from the Digg page that the “promotion” Abehsera promises in his email includes most major social networking sites, with extensive profiles on Reddit, Stumbleupon, Twitter and even Pownce. Oh yeah, and his first big hit on Digg: a story about Fred 🙂

I can’t tie Abehsera with absolute 100% certainty to the WOO Agency and the official Zipit campaign, but the evidence at hand would suggest the likelihood of his official involvement is strong.

There’s been something very odd about the whole Fred/ Zipit campaign from the start. That an unknown kid can become a huge star while plugging a product from the beginning does not immediately scream “natural selection” to anyone with half a brain. That Zipit would seek, even after the huge success of the Fred videos to attempt to plant positive press in blogs when they are no longer needed would suggest that this is part of an ongoing placement campaign. How much of the Fred success story is real, and how much of it was targeted manipulation of social media to catapult the kid to stardom, and by association expose the Zipit product to more people?

Credit where it’s due: they’ve done a fine job with the campaign, but the truth isn’t as rosy as the content they send bloggers to post. Fred is the construct of one of the best social media conjobs we’ve seen, nothing more, nothing less. The challenge is whether the next time the mainstream media gushes over the Fred story, they’ll get off their backsides and do some basic journalism to see whether the story they publish is completely real or not.