March 6, 2014

What Funny or Die's Hoverboard Video Can Teach Us About Creating a Viral Hoax

Recently a video popped up on the internet featuring what claimed to be a real hoverboard from the Back to the Future films (specifically the 2nd and 3rd films), from a company called HUVr. It had celebrity endorsement after celebrity endorsement, with the likes of Tony Hawk and even Doc Brown himself, Christopher Lloyd, making an appearance. Turns out comedy website Funny or Die was behind the whole thing, but that doesn't mean it's a total letdown. The response from people and how quickly the video spread can teach us a lot about these kinds of videos, how to make them (with a little bit of money), and how to keep the illusion a reality for as long as possible.

If you happened to miss the original videos, here they are:

And Christopher Lloyd's "apology," which includes an offer to win a free signed hoverboard replica from the movies:

Take Something That People Wish Existed & Make It a Reality

Hoverboards are not real, and the actual technology to make anything "hover" currently involves magnets and superconductors -- which is essentially how high-speed maglev trains work, or Electrohydrodynamic devices, which can create lift by electrically charging air molecules (and there are more we don't really need to get into). To put it simply, the flying cars and hoverboards of Back to the Future are safely in the realm of science fiction, and we won't be seeing them anytime soon.

That doesn't mean it wouldn't be cool to have them, and that's one of the reasons the video worked on enough people. Even in the face of something unbelievable, we want to believe -- because it's just so damn cool if it were true.

Use Actual Celebrities

When it comes to convincing people, celebrities do a pretty good job, and we tend to trust them, which is why they frequently vouch for all sorts of charity organizations. When you get stars like Moby, Tony Hawk, and Terrell Owens (not to mention Christopher Lloyd who was in the movies), and they are all acting sincere, people are likely going to play along a bit longer. This is obviously not cheapt, and it may only work for certain kinds of videos, but without the celebrity endorsements, the whole thing would have fallen apart much faster than it did.

Build a Slick-Looking Website

Speaking of celebrity endorsements, getting someone like Mark Cuban to give their support on your website isn't a bad start. Putting together a very slick website goes a long way towards convincing people what you're doing is real, and the HUVr site, with its ample white space and clean lines, does the job perfectly.

Don't Have Credited Actors Playing "Real-life" People

If you have someone claiming to be a scientist, and they have a decent list of IMDb credits (which includes their picture), people are going to figure it out pretty fast. The main engineer working for HUVr in the video is Nelson Cheng. If you want great performances, actors are a good place to start, but at the very least they shouldn't be so easily recognizable.

It Must Be Kept Secret By Everyone Involved

Another way this unraveled as quickly as it did, a costume designer who worked on the project had added the HUVr video to her resume. If you want something to seem real as long as possible, secrecy is extremely important. Friends and family can certainly slip, and it doesn't take long for the circle to get big enough for plenty of people on the internet to catch wind of the situation.

Don't Let the Seams Show

The harness that was holding up the actors is seen in a shadow in at least one part of the video. If you want your viral to be believable for longer, those little details matter. Many of these involve special effects, and if you're having trouble getting those effects to look real, you're not going to convince too many folks (though the effects are superb in this video). A frequent technique is to make the video low enough quality to hide those seams. If people can't quite make out what is really going on, it's hard to discredit the video outright. That wasn't the strategy in this case, and it may or may not have worked out in their favor.

When People Figure It Out

If you're creating a viral or hoax video for whatever it is you're advertising (and it's still unclear what Funny or Die's true purpose was in creating this), when people figure out for certain that this thing is fake (and they will), some are either going to be upset, or they may even make it a point not to have anything to do with whatever it is you're promoting. If you're at a level where money is being thrown effortlessly, feel free to carry on, but if you might just have a chance to create that perfect viral video, the end product needs to live up to the hype you created in the first place or the backlash just might be worse than if you never created it at all.

Aftermath

This isn't really a guide (since doing this intentionally often requires more money than most of us are working with), but it's interesting how quickly many of these details unraveled the entire illusion (disregarding how fake parts of it look). Maybe it was Funny or Die's plan all along to come out very quickly and admit they had created it, but then again it seems like an awful lot of work if they weren't going to let the thing play out for very long. The ultimate laugh may be that they aren't really promoting anything, and the entire joke was to see how long people would play along? Unlikely, but we'll probably find out soon enough.

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Your Comment

18 Comments

But...but...but...

Stating in the video that it is NOT a hoax and is REAL and saying "FOOLED YA" afterwards...

That is probably the lamest of the lame. That's uberlame. That's basically the definition of lame.
THIS IS LAME

That's like some guy would say he hacked a 5D to shoot 8K footage. People go, yeah right... But in the video, it says: This is not a hoax, this is real! I am serial you guys!

And then later on: SIKE! I JOKE! HAHAHAHHA! I AM FUNNY MAN LOL

I repeat: LAME

March 6, 2014 at 9:13AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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You must live a sad life, laugh a little every now and then... it's good for you

March 6, 2014 at 9:32AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Bradyn

Because I was so completely infatuated with these films as a child, I actually found it offensive that they made an attempt to screw with my hopes and dreams. I laughed about it, and as a filmmaker I immediately spotted the hoax, but a small part of me still died inside.

March 6, 2014 at 9:36AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Adam W.

Likewise! I remember when they did something similar soon after Back to the Future II was released. The rumor was that hover boards actually did exist, but parents wouldn't allow them to be manufactured for safety reasons. Ridiculous on both sides, but easy enough for a 12-year-old to believe!

March 6, 2014 at 11:08AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Ben

A good hoax has to be believable up to a certain point. This one isn't even close to believable. Well done, yes, but I didn't even get close to believing this could be happening.

March 6, 2014 at 11:54AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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FabDex

I was sure it was real! i trusted them blindly :/

March 6, 2014 at 10:28PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Noegard

It wasn't even an elaborate hoax. Lloyd, Moby and couple of nobodies promoting thin air.

March 6, 2014 at 11:55AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Natt

So, turns out Moby's a dick.

#liarliarpantsonfire

March 6, 2014 at 12:31PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Huh

Yes, they should have lowered the quality. Like when those Americans pretended to go to the moon in the late ’60s / early ’70s. That one ran for years!

March 6, 2014 at 12:56PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Ian

People doing anything to get PR.

March 6, 2014 at 1:28PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Dan

What was the reason to do this at all? Good wholesome fun? Didn't find any good wholesome fun about it all. Just found a way to sell nostalgia and then lie about it again. Way to go guys!

March 6, 2014 at 1:41PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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John Wilton

Jimmy Kimmel did his "wolf in Sochi" hoax and I must say I fell for it. But I do have a built-in excuse. I have actually been to Sochi (albeit not in 2014) and found the wolf story to be par for the course.

March 6, 2014 at 1:59PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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DLD

It just didn't seem as funny as it could have been. They also could have done a better job selling the promo video. They should have explained it worked like a Segway or something. Also the straight legs were annoying. I expect better from Funny or Die.

March 6, 2014 at 2:37PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Madara

loved it, very nicely done piece

March 6, 2014 at 5:05PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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NoWhiteInMyCup

I think we all need a good hoax now and then. C'mon people, lighten up. A lot.

March 6, 2014 at 5:51PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Dave

I love funny or die material. Unfortunately I didn't really think this was funny. It was quite well done (minus the minor harness rotoing) however, and could have used a bit more science mumbo jumborese to bump up their website, but fairly well executed!

I found Christopher Lloyd's apology more humourous overall. Is that funny? =>

March 7, 2014 at 2:11AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Thanks me Lloyd
The notice just broke my heart!
I still believe in you!
Thanks

March 7, 2014 at 5:27PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Bernardo Iriarte

wtf was that?= why people watch this?

March 7, 2014 at 9:56PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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sebas