Yes, they’re fake. They have no connection with Puma at all. They’re not real
ads tweaked in Photoshop, they didn’t run in Brazilian Maxim, they’re not viral
marketing by a top-secret Puma subsidiary. They’re fakes, and Puma doesn’t like
them one bit. Here’s the official statement, as emailed to me by Peter Kim,
the man in charge of interactive marketing at Puma in Boston:
It has been brought to our attention that several unauthorized, sexually
suggestive advertisements portraying the PUMA brand have been released over
the Internet. We are appalled that images like these would be created and
distributed under the PUMA name. As a brand, we seek to take a unique perspective
toward our advertising in an effort to challenge the boundaries of our industry;
however we would never consider using these tactics. We are in the process
of researching the circumstances and reserve any legal steps available.
What am I talking about? A pair of ads, purportedly for Puma, which hit the
internet just over a week ago. They hit my radar screen via the incomparable
them on MemeFirst. I didn’t know whether or not they were genuine, but there
was a lot of interest in them: between Gawker and Salon (in a page no longer
available), the MemeFirst page soon garnered more than 10,000 page views.
What’s more, the site which originally posted the pictures went offline for
some reason, prompting MemeFirst to host them itself (here
and here). If you
don’t want to view them at MemeFirst, however, there’s no shortage of other
sites where they’re available (the original seems to be this
one, in Norway).
At this point, Puma started getting in on the act. Various people at the company
seem to have known about the purported ads for well over a week, but it’s only
been in the past couple of days that they started emailing and phoning people.
Soon one of the first venues for discussion of the ads changed
them to something completely different, and the official statement above
started appearing at sites like ad-rag.com
I got interested, and sought out Puma myself. (Evidently MemeFirst.com wasn’t
important enough to hit their radar screen and prompt them to contact me.) I
had a long conversation with Peter Kim, who seems like a very nice chap who’s
well aware of how these kind of viral internet memes spread.
He started out explaining to me that the fake ads constituted trademark infringement,
defamation, and possibly libel, and that "definitely legal action is in
the works". He told me that "it’s a clear-cut case that this is illegal
content," and that if MemeFirst didn’t take the images down, it would face
legal action itself. He even tried to anticipate any argument I might have along
freedom-of-the-press grounds; while saying quite explicitly that he was not
a lawyer, he averred that blogs are "not a media outlet" and that
they are therefore not protected on First Amendment grounds. When I said that
didn’t sound right to me, though, he didn’t belabour the point. "I’m neither
a journalist nor a lawyer," he said. "I’m a web department manager."
Kim seemed pretty straightforward and far from threatening when he told me
that "you can take the stuff down before the machine gets rolling, or you
can choose not to." He was clearly concerned by "dozens of emails"
that he and Puma’s PR people had received from people who thought the ads were
genuine, and who even went as far as threatening lawsuits against Puma on sexual-discrimination
grounds. Certainly, he said, with regard to the person who actually created
these images, "when the truth comes out, it’s not going to be a pretty
picture, because people are pretty miffed about it."
He also seemed to understand that Puma’s PR campaign was something of an uphill
battle. "We are handling it on a case-by-case basis," he said, which
seemed to mean having Peter Kim phone or email any website he came across with
the images. "We’ve decided not to publish a statement on the Puma website."
That decision seemed a bit peculiar to me, and although he was too polite to
say so, I think he thought it a bit odd to. After all, a statement on felixsalmon.com
isn’t quite as authoritative as one on puma.com.
But the fact is, there’s really very little that Puma can do. If it does take
legal action against the likes of MemeFirst, it’s only likely to perpetuate
the meme further. What’s more, the extra publicity would only serve to increase
the number of conspiracy theorists who think that this is all a convoluted scheme
dreamed up by Puma itself. As Kim admits, "there’s almost nothing I can
say" to counter the idea that some bright spark walked in to the office
one day and said "OK, let’s create a blowjob ad and then deny it".
The rival theory, of course, is that the whole thing is a creation of Puma’s
arch-rival, Adidas. Kim’s not convinced, though. "I would not want to give
them that much credit," he says. "My first reaction was that it had
to be a Brit."