5 corporate hoaxes and how they rocked the business world

09 November 2015 -


The rise of the viral internet video has been meteoric in recent years, and has helped spawn a number of business hoaxes that have duped and astonished people across the globe

Jermaine Haughton

The internet has become a hotbed for hoaxers looking to steal a march on the competition or earn some notoriety, driven by an appetite from consumers and journalists for finding the next big thing and the ease with which stories can go viral.

New smartphone app Peeple said that it was going to allow users to assign reviews and one- to five-star ratings to any person they know, from school friends to girlfriends to co-workers for fellow users to follow.

Despite co-founder Julia Cordray claiming the platform was a place for positive comments, many feared that Peeple would become a haven for trolls to taunt people online. After several critical reviews of the app, most notably by the Washington Post, the site was deleted with no traces left online – leading to suggestions in internet forums and messageboards about the app “being the most elaborate internet hoax” ever.

A subsequent report by Newsweek, influenced heavily by a report by rumour-debunking website Snopes, found Peeple was never patented in the U.S. or Canada and traces of the complex application are not present on Google, or any of the other search engines.

Beautiful people only

Keen to cover breaking news as quickly as possible, many tech and mainstream news sites and publications were caught out by startup LoveRoom in 2013.

The premise of LoveRoom was that it's an apartment rental service that only rents to attractive people. Creator Josh Bocanegra even produced a website, which attracted mass media attention, with duped reporters writing full length think pieces on the “service” as if it was actually real.

But the hoax was uncovered by Forbes’ Kashmir Hill, who found that the startup company pitched as Airbnb for attractive people was merely a controversial concept rather than an existing business.

The darker side of hoaxes

While LoveRoom could be considered a silly but harmless prank on the media, some corporate hoaxes have been used as a weapon against organisations – as oil giant Shell found out to its detriment in 2012.

Environmental campaigners Greenpeace and activists Yes Men launched an almost identical website to Shell's at www.arcticready.com, which parodied the oil and gas corporation’s operations and its negative effect on the environment.

The website read: “So while climate change is a serious thing, and its effects, as scientists say, could wipe out a large chunk of humanity, such outcomes are a mere possibility – whereas the benefits from oil extraction are a certainty."

The meticulously-planned stunt also included the creation of seemingly authentic Twitter and Facebook accounts, which attracted thousands of followers and was used as a source for a number of mainstream news outlets, including The Huffington Post.

The smear campaign went viral and appeared on all major social media platforms, hitting some 500,000 views in 24 hours on YouTube and trending with the hashtag #ShellFAIL.

Afraid to draw any more attention to the issue, Shell released a soft statement in response to the hoax some two weeks later when the hype had died down.

Promoting Good Causes

Some activists-turned-pranksters have taken advantage of people’s internet behaviour and most-visited websites to sneakily promote good causes.

A Dutch PR firm duped internet surfers by making a fake Google “fortune-telling” page to raise awareness about the refugee crisis. BrainMedia mimicked the Google search page, using the tech giant’s new logo and listings format, but instead of a search bar, it asks visitors to type in a question about their future. After submitting a question, users were then automatically directed to a new page with information detailing the Middle-Eastern refugee crisis with links to charities for donations.

Similarly, hoax company ComputerTan promised to help people achieve a regular tan while they used their computers and fooled thousands of people who registered their interest to use the service. Attracting 30,000 hits to the fake firm’s website in the first 24 hours, the prank was set up by agency McCann Erickson for skin cancer charity Skcin, and was aimed at raising awareness of the growing threat of skin cancer.

Launched in February 2009, the campaign’s website allows people to switch on what is advertised to be a free tanning session, but users are instead confronted with shocking images and facts about the development and consequences of skin cancer.

While critics have denounced the campaign for manipulating users, the hoax certainly had an impact on boosting awareness, earning media coverage from the BBC, Guardian and Daily Mail.

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