This week a video made the rounds that purported to show a beagle trained as an airline lost and found dog. The adorable beagle would smell items left on KLM planes, then trot around Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport to sniff out the rightful owners. The video was posted all over my newsfeed, on major news sites, and across the aggregators I use to collect stories from around the web. It was labeled with headlines about how cute the dog was, how impressive its training was, etc.
Until people realized the video wasn’t quite real. In fact, it was simply a promotional video for KLM’s new lost & found task force. The video’s canine star was just an actor, helping KLM tell a story of commitment and care. A metaphor, of sorts.
Soon, all those sites that had shared the video with praise for its star added revisions to their stories explaining that this was just an ad. And while many sites took the “too good to be true” correction route, other sites threw blame at KLM, calling the video a “hoax” or a “lie.” My favorite came from Seattle’s Fox syndicate, which wrote that KLM “admits” that the beagle is not really a part of its lost and found team.
Here’s the thing: this video is an ad. We see unbelievable ads all the time, from talking babies to singing snowmen. We suspend reality for ads, when we see them in an ad context. But when a video goes “viral” – out of context – we forget to do a reality check. And simultaneously, since the video isn’t explicitly framed for us as an ad, the line between what’s real, what’s staged, what’s promotional gets murkier and harder for us to perceive.
Yes, it’s a bummer KLM doesn’t use a dog as its lost and found chief of staff: after all, a beagle sniffing out lost items is pretty darn cute. But calling the ad a “hoax” seems dramatic. Compare the beagle video to the story of a Zilla van den Born, a Dutch student who did an “experiment” where she told her family and friends she was taking a trip to Southeast Asia. And then instead of actually going, she simply edited photos to make it look like she went. She hid out for over 6 weeks, emailing her family updates and posting to social media about her adventures. At the end of her “trip,” she revealed that she’d never even left Amsterdam. She claimed her project was in the name of social experimentation, showing how easy it is to distort our reality on social media and lay claim to a life that isn’t representative of our real worlds. But what about all her loved ones who thought she was really on a trip? Don’t you think they felt a little duped?
And what about the video that surfaced later this week, where online daters wore fake fat suits on first dates to see how the other person would react? The experimenters wanted to see how people would respond when their date showed up and was heavier than in his or her profile pictures. But why does that get to be called an “experiment” while the beagle video is a dupe? The people on those dates were actually lied to twice: first when they showed up to someone in a fat suit, and then when they found out it was actually just an “experiment” and not a real date. Is that an experiment only because it’s in the name of “learning” and not an ad?
We know that the online world isn’t as it seems. We can pin whatever we want on Pinterest, to the point that Pinterest’s marketing team accidentally congratulated single women on their engagements because they posted so many wedding-related pins. We can skew our newsfeeds to the best parts of our lives, but leave out the nights where we feel lonely, scared, or sad. But we have to remember that the online world is just that: a place where we’ve built out our lives as we want to see them, and as we want others to perceive them. When something floats around the Internet, it always deserves a reality check, whether it’s a cute beagle or a man in a fat suit.
In case you missed it – here is KLM’s adorable beagle “employee”: