Virgin Mobile’s “Sparah” campaign: Art imitates life … or vice versa?

In recent days, American television viewers have begun to see ads about a “faux” celebrity couple — Spencer Falls and Sarah Carroll – dubbed “Sparah.” What’s up with this?

It turns out that Virgin Mobile dreamed up these entirely fictitious characters as a way to raise interest and generate “buzz” about its Android-powered phones that feature monthly “pay as you go” plans that include unlimited web, data, messaging and e-mail.

The idea is to pique the curiosity of viewers who will then interact with other consumers and go online to view a variety of videos about this “celebrity couple.”

Now, before reading this blog post any further, I’d suggest you take a moment and view the intro ad here.

The “celebrity couple” is being “given” a house in Hollywood Hills, a stylist and an agent/publicist. As their “fame” grows, the “couple” is being asked to “participate” in activities “typical” of A-list celebrities, including photo shoots, store openings and appearances at special events.

As part of their “contract” with Virgin Mobile, the “couple” will be chronicling their “activities” across a variety of social media channels, including Facebook. Twitter and FourSquare.

And of course, the consumer public is being urged to “keep up with Sparah” by following all of the “important activities” of this “celebrity couple.”

Judging from the comments being left by viewers of the “Sparah” videos on YouTube, Virgin Mobile’s campaign is having the desired effect so far. Not only is the campaign generating significant buzz, it’s near-universally positive in tone.

There’s little doubt that Virgin Mobile has come up with a clever and successful way to generate awareness and interest in its phone plans as it competes with other service providers in the market. But what’s also interesting is that Virgin Mobile is shining a light on the hyperbole and “blue smoke and mirrors” that inform so much of social media and celebrity marketing today.

The line between what’s genuine versus what’s “manufactured” in pop culture – whether news or biography or gossip – is a very fine one. That’s always been the case, of course: the successes of a Lillie Langtry or Sarah Bernhardt a century ago would not have been so impressive without it.

But in today’s world, the explosion of interactive communications creates a hothouse-like environment in which the buzz can be born and spread faster than ever. (That’s why it’s often called “going viral.”)

It’s not hard to speculate that Virgin Mobile is conducting this campaign with “tongue planted firmly in cheek.” Still, the marketing pros at the company realize that while people may laugh at the irony of the campaign, at the same time Virgin Mobile is benefiting in a major way from the very things they’re spoofing. And that’s a master stroke.

Art imitating life? Life imitating art? It’s a pointed joke for sure … but on whom?

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