Welcome to Is This an Ad? — a column in which we take a celebrity’s social media post about a brand or product and find out if they’re getting paid to post about it or what. Even though the FTC recently came out with rules on this, it’s not always clear. Send a tip for ambiguous tweets or ’grams to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Last week, someone posted a photo of a strange flyer to Reddit:
Did someone actually somehow dry out the meal replacement drink Soylent and turn it into modeling clay? I wanted to know, so I called the phone number on the flyer and at the bottom of the website. It had a long outgoing voicemail message from a man named “Bo” asking if you want the sculpture and then also talking about his girlfriend.
Here’s a recording of the outgoing voicemail:
Weird, right? What the hell!
It’s so strange that it feels maybe a little TOO strange…like, maybe it’s actually just an ad.
When I asked Soylent, they sent me this image:
I tried some obvious things: reverse-searching the images (nothing), the phone number (nothing), the URL registration (private). The mystery deepened.
In the subreddit r/Soylent where the photo of the flyer was posted, fans of the meal-in-a-bottle drink speculated it was some sort of viral marketing. One redditor said he was sure it was an ad, and it was similar to another flyer about Soylent he had posted in the past.
In the comments, a tech-savvy redditor looked at the source code for the URL and said it was pretty sophisticated — a sign it was probably a professional job. They also noticed that the site was created by something called “Imakesites” — when they searched that, only three sites came up, and they were all related to Soylent.
Another redditor posted a screenshot of what happened when they texted the phone number from the flyer, which only added to the mystery:
Wagner had also made a whole series of flyers about Soylent-related things:
So I asked Wagner if the flyers and websites were paid advertisements for Soylent. Wagner politely declined to answer.
At this point, I was really unsure whether this was an ad or not. On one hand, the Law of Spon™ says that if something smells like an ad, it probably is.
But on the other hand, these aren't particularly “good” ads. All three are kind of making fun of Soylent and making it seem weird and gross and something only a creepy weirdo drinks. This is definitely not the brand image Soylent wants to project, right?
Yes, the flyer seemed “fake” in the sense a man probably hadn't actually sculpted his girlfriend out of Soylent. But it if was just a joke, did Alan Wagner just do it for fun? Or was Soylent paying for it?
Suddenly, I had a breakthrough. The Instagram of the dog that drinks Soylent was tagged to an Instagram account for a dog named Astro. A man named Nathan who seemed to be Astro’s owner was tagged in one of the dog’s photos. So I contacted Nathan through his Instagram and asked if the Soylent posters with his dog were for a paid ad.
Nathan replied that yes, it was an ad. Soylent paid his friend, the comedian Alan Wagner, and Wagner gave Nathan a small cut in exchange for a photo of Astro.
Armed with this new info from the dog owner, I asked both Soylent and Wagner if they wanted to comment. They still both declined.
Look, I get it. It was a funny, weird stunt meant to be cool and hip. It’s funny because it’s sort of mysterious, and it’s unclear if it’s an ad or not. That’s the whole joke.
But as advertising becomes more and more diffused in our online lives, it becomes harder and harder to tell what’s an ad and what’s not. We see celebrities stealthily endorsing products on Instagram, product placement in TV shows and movies, and trusted media sites doing advertorial content and affiliate shopping links (both of which BuzzFeed does! But we always try to make it as clear as possible when we do).
It only gets more confusing when a brand like Soylent refuses to answer a direct question about whether something was an ad. Being clear about ads might ruin the fun of a cool and creative stunt, but refusing to admit it is kind of, well, shady.