More Fun With DrPherotone

by Bruce Stewart

After posting a silly little IM interview last week with the character posing as Dr. Myra Vanderhood, the supposed scientist behind Pherotones, savvy readers of this blog and sleuthed the orgin of this marketing campaign by tracing IP numbers and registration information of the related sites and disputed Wikipedia entry back to the advertising firm McKinney Silver. Shortly after these comments showed up, a new line was added to the Pherotones FAQ:

Q: Is this site part of a marketing campaign?

A: Yes it is. Thanks for your interest. Please check back to see further developments about Pherotones!!

The whole thing sparked quite a commotion out there among people who pay attention to advertising and marketing, and there was widespread slamming of McKinney for this "creative" campaign that was attempting to present fake science as something real. I'm not sure how I feel about these kind of immersive, viral marketing campaigns that McKinney is known for (they are the agency behind Audi's recent "THE ART OF THE H3IST"), but I definitely agree with most critics that they went too far when they tried to pollute the Wikipedia with a bogus pherotone entry. C'mon guys, the Wikipedia is having enough trouble with mainstream public perception lately, it really doesn't need ad folks trying to manipulate entries too. (I suppose another way of looking at it is that incidents like this help demonstrate the power of Wikipedia's self-healing nature -- that pherotone entry may very well be history by the time you're reading this).

Well, the "IM the DR." link was still up, and I couldn't resist trying to get a little more info from the folks behind pherotones, or at least to add a little humor to my afternoon...

DrPherotone: Hi. How are you today?

bruceETel: doing well, thanks! What's going on with the wikipedia entry for pherotones, do you know? did you write that entry?

DrPherotone: Well, when you consider the groupthink that rules mainstream "acceptable" science, it's surprising they let it stay up for even one minute.

DrPherotone: No, but it is based on a lot of my work.

bruceETel: Are you going to try and fight to keep it up?

DrPherotone: You can't fight city hall. The only way to keep it up there is to prove once and for all the existence and potency of Pherotones. That's the only fight I am interested in.

bruceETel: Are you working for McKinney Silver?

DrPherotone: No, they work for me. I'm doing a blog post about this.

bruceETel: Oh, great, that might help with the confusuon. when will that be up?

DrPherotone: As soon as I write it. I do the research here, the business stuff is not in my purview, but I know we needed help with our site.

bruceETel: And you hired McKinney to help you build a site to do that?

DrPherotone: Actually, the board hired someone who hired someone...all I know is that there were a bunch of scruffy looking kids sitting in the conference room last month, wearing torn jeans and $200 shirts and Italian designer converse sneakers...the websters we call them.

bruceETel: Do you work for a phone carrier comapny?

DrPherotone: We are seeking partners, negotiating...I personally am independently wealthy, and I am an awesome grant proposal writer, so the research takes care of itself. We need pherotones out in the marketplace so that we can study it better.

bruceETel: The consensus of folks I've talked to seems to be that this is a marketing campaign of some sort, not for pherotones themselves, but for some other kind of company. If that's not the case, where are some technical references to the work you've done that others can review?

DrPherotone: Do you mean peer reviewed journals?

bruceETel: i mean anything at all

DrPherotone: It's kind of sore spot with me. because of my views, I've been drummed out of the academy, not by my choosing...So a lot of my best work has been expunged from the scientific literature. Part of my quest is to establish the truth, and reclaim my reputation.

bruceETel: Do you have any response to those who say this is a viral marketing campaign?

DrPherotone: I don't know what viral means, but like I said before, it is obviously a marketing campaign, for us, for pherotones. How could it be anything else?

bruceETel: I'd be very interested in knowing who is funding this effort.

DrPherotone: You can email me with your credentials, and I might allow you to speak with one of our spokesmen, could you do that, email me your contact info. I need to make sure you are legit, who you say you are.

bruceETel: OK, that would be great. Shall I send you an email with my details and you could set that up?

DrPherotone: Yes, and I can forward it onto Mckinney.

Clearly I wasn't going to get anywhere by chatting with the "Dr." I sent off my details in email and was ready to forget about the whole thing when last night I got one more hilarious response in my inbox. The "Dr." emailed me to see if anyone had gotten back to me (of course they hadn't.) She promised she'd make it happen soon, and although she claimed we had developed a special relationship, and we had this nice source-journalist thing going on ("You are like Judy Miller to my Scooter Libby"), further prodding hasn't generated anything of substance, and I do think it's time to call this a wrap.

The only question I still have is who was the client here? If you have any knowledge or hunches, please drop in with a comment. Speculation has run from Qwest, McKinney's big telecom customer, to this somehow being tied to Stephen King's new novel, which we know already has a ringtone marketing program in place. But despite all the promises from the good doctor, I don't think I'm going to be hearing from anyone at McKinney anytime soon. Oh well, on to more serious matters. I hope it was as good for you Dr, as it was for me.


2006-01-24 06:24:35
I hate that I always come off as the guy with no sense of humor here, but when I read this piece I am at once amused and concerned. Look -- this campaign has obviously worked. It's achieved tons of blog buzz, and negative or positive, McKinney clearly could care less. It's a win for them.

So, my question then is this:

Are we prepared for the day when 1000 other advertising firms -- large and small, hip and not hip, ones who "get it" and ones who don't -- are making up "facts" and posting it on Wikipedia, and making the whole bloggy world like a chat room where a 14-year-old girl always has to wonder if she's chatting with a 50-year-old man who's just pretending to be a 14-year-old boy?

Bruce Stewart
2006-01-24 10:07:18
Good point Scott, but I'm not sure that it's true that this has been all that successful or that "McKinney clearly could care less". Most of the blogosphere buzz is about whether they should be doing campaigns like this at all, not about the mysterious campaign itself. The rapid outing of McK as the creator of the site and the bogus wikipedia entry forced them to admit that it was a marketing campaign probably far sooner than they would have liked to, and I have a hunch that some of the people involved may be feeling like the whole thing wasn't such a great idea now. We still don't know who it was intended to promote (and maybe now we never will). This isn't looking like a terribly successful marketing campaign to me.
2006-01-24 14:44:20
Bruce: I believe McKinney has modified the Wikipedia post. Half-measures...
2006-01-24 20:06:15
The wiki police deleted it

McKinney still has it linked from the good doctor's blog however.