The reviews for the new Guinness advertising campaign are in - and they are a marketer's dream.
One comment on YouTube.com, where the "Share One With a Friend" spot was posted several weeks ago on its way to becoming a smashing viral success, called the spot "Brilliant." Another declared it "The Best Commercial Ever."
But if you're expecting Guinness to be happy about it, don't be.
"Please be assured that Guinness is in no way associated with this video," Diageo PLC, the parent company of the famous Irish stout, said in a statement this week. "This is not how we want our brand portrayed."
The 60-second fake commercial depicts a woman in the midst of - how shall we say this - group sex. Closely cropped on the woman and a bottle of Guinness, the scene is raunchy but cleverly shot to leave out the naughty bits. It ends with the punchline: "Share One With a Friend."
It's the kind of reverence you expect from a beer commercial, and even Diageo acknowledges its similarity to other Guinness campaigns, with the same soft shadows and colour palette.
But Diageo, which expects to roll out a new campaign in Canada in the next two weeks, is dealing with a rogue advertiser, and a successful one at that. "Share One With a Friend" may be on its way to becoming the brand's most-talked-about, most e-mailed commercial in years, even though the company would rather it never existed.
It is a situation faced by a number of companies lately. Perhaps the highest profile brand feud this summer involves the Olive Garden, which has spent the past few weeks fretting over its unwanted association with Playboy. The family restaurant has been talked up by Playmate Kendra Wilkinson on a TV show depicting the lives of Bunnies, much to the chain's dismay.
That disagreement comes on the heels of J.C. Penney Co. Inc.'s high profile predicament in June, where an unauthorized commercial hinting at teenage sex - it showed young people practising getting dressed in a hurry to prevent their parents from catching them mid-make out - leaked onto the Internet. Even though the clothing retailer did not endorse the idea, which had been pitched by an advertising firm, it became a hit on YouTube and drew praise at Cannes.
What's a company to do?
On one hand, the fake Guinness commercial has people talking - especially those in the beer's target demographic, young men. But as Guinness spokeswoman Beth Davies Ryan put it in an interview from Dublin this week, "the content is not appropriate for our brand or our company."
Diageo first tried to stop the ad from spreading. Almost immediately after it hit YouTube at the end of July, lawyers asked the site to remove it. YouTube complied, but users began posting copies onto the site. Every time one comes down, three more go up.
Legal action is difficult since little is known about the creator, an amateur filmmaker who goes by the handle Deschatz and claims to have made the commercial for $320 (currency unknown), spending $20 on beer and $300 for the actress.
"I shot the ad with no intention of sending it to Guiness [sic]because of the content," Deschatz said in an Internet posting discussing the spot. "This was meant for a good laugh. It shouldn't get more serious than that."
It has, though. Diageo is worried that some of its sponsorship partners and major customers might object. The company also doesn't want to encourage copycat campaigns.
So it chose a third route: After issuing an official statement clarifying it has no connection to the spot, company execs chose to ignore it.
"These things live in perpetuity, so I think it's a case of stepping up and saying this is not ours, it's not something we endorse, and then just frankly move on," Ms. Ryan said.
The same strategy has been adopted by the Olive Garden, which appears to be looking the other way as hype grows. Ms. Wilkinson, one of Hugh Hefner's three live-in girlfriends and a star of the E! network series The Girls Next Door, has given the restaurant chain numerous on-air plugs and says she eats there regularly.
Olive Garden isn't thrilled, but it has avoided taking on Playboy directly. The chain, which is run by Darden Restaurants Inc., has taken a reserved approach, telling reporters it is "a complicated issue." And after Playboy announced it would be holding a Girls of Olive Garden photo shoot, the company said it would not prevent its workers from posing nude, but stated it does not endorse the idea.
While Olive Garden's approach looks like an attempt to quietly cash in on the publicity, it is also attempting to avoid negative buzz. That's something Playboy counts on when it piggybacks on brands for such projects as the Girls of Wal-Mart and Girls of McDonald's.
"I think they handled it right," John Thomas, editor of Playboy.com, said of Olive Garden. "They've been cool about it, they had a chance to be shrill about it and they didn't."
"We were certainly respectful of them and we didn't make fun of them," Mr. Thomas said. "We know how to do it without making any kind of trademark mistake or anything like that."
The story has been talked about on CNN, Leno and Letterman. Mr. Thomas figures that kind of coverage, along with the mentions on The Girls Next Door, probably exceeds the reach of a regular Olive Garden television ad.
Such unsolicited endorsements may be changing the way some brands are moulded. Diageo is considering embracing user-generated ads by devoting a segment of its website to fan-created campaigns using official video and photos.
There will be limits, however.
"Global brands like Guinness are going to increasingly find themselves the star in consumer-created content," Ms. Ryan said. "It's not something that we're afraid of, or something that we don't think is a good thing. It's just something that when it goes beyond our boundaries, we're going to say that's not okay with us."
The "Share One With a Friend" commercial may have given the company a new perspective. "This is a good learning experience," Ms. Ryan said.