If you haven't already seen the Netflix show Is it cake?, I highly recommend you do. It's a show in which a group of contestants try to spot the everyday objects put in front of them that are, in fact, cake in disguise. You'd think the cakey ones would stand out like a sore thumb (sponge finger?), but the biggest surprise about the whole thing is that they don't. You might spot a cushion with a few folds that scream royal icing but, for every cushion, there's a table or a candlestick that slips through the net. 100% cake, just right under your nose, and you couldn't even tell.
Is it just me, or is the world of out-of-home advertising starting to feel a little like an episode of Is it Cake?
A video recently went viral of a tube train with giant eyelashes fixed to its front, speeding along a track before driving through a giant mascara wand (left). It was met with near hysterical levels of excitement, with the Evening Standard claiming that people were "losing their minds" over it, while on Instagram one user said: "This is the best thing I have ever seen in my life".
Soon after, however, the video was revealed to be fake. In a post on LinkedIn, the creator of the video, a digital designer called Ian Padgham, dubbed it "FOOH, or faux out of home" aka "a concept that could exist in real life but which is purely 3D/CGI". He went on to say that "in an age where we experience and share everything online, I think FOOH campaigns could end up being the biggest trend in online advertising".
On looking into it, it was the same digital designer who had created the handbag cars for Jacquemus at Paris Fashion Week earlier this year (below). It hadn't occurred to me at the time, but they were fake too.
This all comes a few weeks after the tactical British Airways Glastonbury poster (below picture credit: LinkedIn) was revealed not to have happened and, as I write, several fake "Barbenheimer" billboards are doing the rounds on social.
It goes without saying that this poses a few questions for our industry: is fake out-of-home really the biggest new trend in online advertising? And if it is, how do we feel about it?
Straw poll of one: I feel excited. Fake out-of-home is a potentially amazing outlet for imagination, and that's something our industry needs on tap, always. And this is the best kind. It's imagination without rules. Creativity completely unhindered by reality, budget, resources and media formats. The world becomes a canvas. Anything can fly, inflate, disappear, turn into a giant marauding Barbie. Buildings can move. Tube trains can be brand ambassadors.
It's exciting, most of all, for its potential to surprise and delight, drive fame and create awe. Advertising could be more exciting than the rest of the content in your feed. Imagine that? Start-ups suddenly have a more level playing field. The planet can breathe a sigh of relief with one less production. A new generation with new digital vision and skills might reappraise our industry, and even want to join it. All of this is brilliant, and we've barely even scratched the surface.
But there's also something about it that makes me think we should proceed with caution. First, because fake out-of-home's success seems to rely on duping consumers. There is no doubt in my mind that if the eyelash-clad tube train had been released with a note saying upfront that it was CGI, then its magic would have been lost. Because as people found out it was fake, disappointed comments appeared that used words like "sadly it's fake" and "unfortunately it's not real".
I've heard people say that the trickery involved is no different to the CGI used in films and TV shows, but I disagree. The viewer-broadcaster contract is different, it's predicated on entertainment, and it signposts fact and fiction. The same isn't true for advertising. The established rules of advertising pivot on truthfulness. And it's important for our industry to stay on the right side of consumer trust.
The world is full of fake news, an economy-smashing referendum was won on advertising lies, and our profession ranks just above politics in terms of trust. And while in the case of fake out-of-home, it's the medium not the message that's the deception, I still think we need to tread carefully.
There's also a moral aspect to consider. If fake out-of-home relies on borrowing from the stature of real out-of-home sites, like the underground and well-placed billboards, is it right to borrow power from a medium that you haven't invested in? Your answer to this question will vary wildly depending on whether you're a brand or a media owner. For the latter, it's likely terrifying.
My solution would be this: to push fake out-of-home to the furthest, most imaginative places we can conceive of, that couldn't be understood by consumers as anything but unadulterated, entertaining branded fiction. Against this criteria, the Glastonbury poster fails spectacularly, being a billboard that relies on truly being there for any enjoyment. The Maybelline tube trains are great, but I think we can go even further. How can we make people say: "That's so amazing, it could never be real", rather than: "That's so amazing – only if it's real."
Or, of course, you actually could do it for real. But in a world of fake out-of-home ads, how will anyone be able to spot and appreciate the real ones? There's one defining factor and it's the same for cake as it is for fake out-of-home. Angles. The more angles you can get on a cakey object, the more you can see that it's cake.
The more angles you see on social media of an out-of-home stunt, the more you know it isn't fake. When it's real, it spreads to people's phones and conversations. They feel compelled to seek it out, spread it and be part of it. The fake ones exist from one angle only. The real ones take on a life of their own. And that's powerful, brand-building stuff.
So, in short, I say: make it real or make it spectacularly fake. But nothing in between.
Mel Arrow is chief strategy officer at McCann London