An unlikely Internet sensation has struck it big on YouTube: Los Angeles City Atty. Carmen Trutanich.
Two polished videos promoting his run for district attorney last month show Trutanich driving the gritty streets of Los Angeles telling war stories from his days as a prosecutor: being shot at by a street gang and sending a killer to death row.
Within days, the videos amassed 725,000 views on YouTube, with the most popular clip leaping past any campaign video from GOP presidential candidates Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich or Rick Santorum. A Trutanich news release trumpeted the videos' popularity as showcasing "broad support behind Trutanich's candidacy from a vast online and grass-roots audience."
But the campaign statement left out a key detail: It paid for many of those YouTube views.
After The Times questioned the video's view count, Trutanich's campaign acknowledged that it had hired an online marketing firm to drum up views by aggressively advertising the videos across the Internet. The Los Angeles firm said it was paid to generate 150,000 to 250,000 views but that a huge online audience then followed naturally.
But several social media experts questioned how many of the views were from genuinely interested people. YouTube recently suspended the accounts of most of the users who left positive comments on the Trutanich videos, citing violations of its policy against commercially deceptive content. Meanwhile, a Connecticut-based online video promoter told The Times that his firm was paid to generate 400,000 views for the Trutanich clips -- far more than the campaign says it paid for.
The Trutanich campaign's experiment with viral video highlights both the potential success and perils of this largely untested form of advertising.
Hollywood studios, big-name brands and politicians looking to hit the Internet jackpot are turning to a new industry of social media marketers to stand out from the masses on the Google-owned site, where nearly 60 hours of new video is uploaded every minute. This new breed of ad agency can help clients reach bigger audiences, but critics say it can also create the image of a groundswell of popularity where none exists.
For some who use such services, the goal is to attract a selective audience of long-term customers or fans. For others, the views are a numbers game aimed at landing content on YouTube's home page, where videos can garner hundreds of thousands of viewers more. When slickly produced videos from big-brand companies go viral, racking up millions of views, it's usually not an accident, said industry officials and observers.
"Somebody gave that a kick-start," said Stuart Schwartzapfel of Big Fuel, which helps companies develop social media strategies. "If I leave it to chance, chances are I won't get a return on my investment."
Companies looking to buy views for their movie trailers, car commercials or music videos can pay a fixed fee for these viral boosters to deliver a guaranteed audience -- say a million views -- or they can pay per view. Industry insiders privately said views can cost pennies apiece to advertisers less concerned with whom their videos are reaching, or up to $2 per view for firms looking to hit their demographic sweet spots.
Besides the broad audiences that popular videos can reach, earning a spot on YouTube's highly trafficked home page means bragging rights to video makers who can say their content promotion was a hit online.
"Now all of a sudden you've got this very public number that declares that this campaign is a great success," said Alex Rowland, a co-founder of Alphabird Inc., a San Francisco online video promotion firm that has worked with Kraft Foods and a number of major auto companies.
Companies like Alphabird say they generate the views by shooting out the videos to popular online destinations like Facebook, Twitter and Google's search engine, as well as advertising the videos on news websites and blogs. They argue that they are providing a new kind of advertising and that because real people are watching the videos, the views and audience are still genuine.
But the idea of buying views has rankled some in the online video world, one largely pioneered by YouTube, which was founded in 2005 on the populist principle its name reflects: that the site would provide users with a people-powered alternative to traditional, corporation-controlled television.
"People believe that YouTube is a completely democratic platform, and that's being exploited very shrewdly by these companies and PR agencies," said Drew Baldwin, co-founder of the Los Angeles online video site Tubefilter.com.
Beyond the Internet's well-lit gathering places lies a seedier bazaar of cheap view-sellers, promising deals on quick YouTube fame, but whose methods may be less laudable. A Google search for "buy YouTube views" yields scores of sites such as MoreTubeViews .com and PimpMyViews .com.
To test how easy it is to buy views, The Times paid two online sites a total of $103 to generate views for a nearly two-minute video of paint drying. In eight days, the clip drew 60,000 views.
In January, YouTube warned that accounts could be shut down if video makers were caught artificially boosting views. The San Bruno, Calif., company said some websites force or trick users into viewing videos they did not intend to watch.
Trutanich's political strategist, John Shallman, said his campaign decided to hire a "top of the game" agency to promote a documentary-style video shot to introduce the candidate to voters.
The firm, Los Angeles-based Yellow Thunder Media, has worked with Sony Pictures, 20th Century Fox and CBS Films. Yellow Thunder says it leverages its "blitz strategy" to speed clients' videos to the top of the YouTube charts.
Within days of posting Trutanich's "Tru Stories" video, Yellow Thunder sent the campaign a screen shot showing that one of the clips had rocketed onto YouTube's home page and top news site.
Ultimately, the 13-minute video drew more than 232,000 views, and a short trailer drew nearly 495,000. Shallman said the company told the campaign that the overwhelming majority of the views were the result of genuine interest.
The evidence for the promotion's success, he said, came when traffic at Trutanich's website surged and 2,000 people signed up online to support the campaign.
But a closer look at the videos shows they had few of the Web's other signs of a viral hit, some online marketing specialists said.
"I think the bulk of their views came from a paid promotion," said Jeremy Scott, who runs the Viral Orchard, an Internet marketing firm, and is editor in chief at ReelSEO.com, a news site about online video creation and marketing.
The vast majority of comments under the videos came from people who joined YouTube within a five-day window last summer and had artificial-sounding user names. "Trutanich for DA!" santo1479 posted under the trailer. "This guy's got my vote," added jian1480.
After The Times asked YouTube whether the comments violated its policies, the company suspended the user accounts of 46 of the videos' 55 commenters "due to multiple or severe violations of YouTube's policy against spam, scams and commercially deceptive content."
Most of those commenters also "liked" or posted comments on YouTube for a small, specific group of videos, including two relatively obscure music clips filmed and edited by a Connecticut-based music video producer, Kurt Zendzian. In an online profile, Zendzian described himself as a viral video promoter, and he posted both Trutanich campaign videos on his Google+ social networking page.
Contacted by The Times, Zendzian said his company was paid to provide 400,000 views -- the bulk of the views for the Trutanich videos -- but said he knew nothing about the comments.
The Trutanich campaign and Yellow Thunder denied putting up the now-suspended comments or hiring Zendzian's firm. Yellow Thunder's chief executive officer, Tony Chen, said that the firm generated its traffic through partnerships with more than 3,500 websites and that he would not be able to determine if Zendzian was among those without conducting an extensive investigation.
The marketing effort, Shallman said, was successful largely because the films resonated with viewers, capturing "a provocative, interesting candidate who has a really cool story to tell."
"I would really not like for people to think that there was something underhanded going on here," he said. "It was just really doing the best we can, trying to get our client's video out."