Fool me once, shame on you.

3 October 2010

Neighbour cat.

In recent days I’ve become enamoured of the Hipstamatic iPhone app. It’s a camera app that let’s you combine ‘films’ and ‘lenses’ to get some really interesting looks that approximate a plastic camera. While I love the way the photos look, there are some there are some nice touches that kind of give you a bit of the mystery and magic you get with analogue. You can shake the iPhone to get a random combination of film and lens so you have no idea what your image will look like when its done. And it’s not an exactly instant thing. After you take your photo, there’s about three seconds of ‘developing’ and a few more seconds of ‘printing’. Lights flash and glow, showing you that progress is being made, and it adds to the anticipation enough to make it fun without taking so long it makes you impatient.

The Hipstamatic is one of those things I just fell in love with. And when I fall in love with something, I want to know more. So as I am want to do, I turned to teh interwebz to find out if the Hipstamatic was a real camera, like the Holga or Lomo, with an eye to buying one if they were.

I quickly found the ‘backstory‘ for the Hipstamatic. The story goes that the real Hipstamatic was the creation of two brothers, Bruce and Winston Dorbowski, in the early 80s. They wanted to create an inexpensive plastic camera that was accessible to anyone of any age who wanted to take a photo. They made 157 cameras and sold about 154 of them before they were tragically killed by a drunk driver on the way home from signing the lease on a new production facility. No more Hipstamatics were ever made and most everything related to the camera was destroyed in a house fire in 1993. The older brother, Richard Dorbowski, was eventually approached by some developers to create an iPhone app and thus it became so.

I was so touched – I thought it was amazingly awesome that the vision of these two brothers carried on decades later. I teared up. I Tweeted about it. But there was something under the surface that didn’t quite feel right. The photo of the ‘original’ Hipstamatic didn’t look real at all. It didn’t even look like something from the 80s. And it just seemed too convenient that everything was destroyed in that house fire, thus explaining why there were no images made with the camera, why there were no pictures of the original cameras being made.

The 'original' Hipstamatic, at least according to the file name. On one website the 'photo' (erm, CG much?) is credited to 'Master Donut' who, conveniently, is also listed as the creator of the now-deleted Hipstamatic Wikipedia page.

So I did a little bit of digging and didn’t find all that much. Pretty much every story on the web mentioning the Hipstamatic backstory took it at face value and repeated what was on the Hipstamatic ‘tribute’ site that Richard supposedly ran. There was one interview with the guys behind the company who made the app, Synthetic, but they stuck to the story. They even claimed to have used one of the few remaining cameras, but “sadly” they didn’t get to keep it.

Wait. You had an original Hipstamatic in your hands and never thought to take a picture of it?

The credibility pretty much falls to zero right there. A few commenters here and there expressed their cynicism about the story, but pretty much everyone just sucked it up. I decided to do a bit more digging and nothing I’ve found makes me think anything other than this is a story created as part of the marketing efforts.

  • No Wikipedia page for the Hipstamatic currently exists. It looks like it had issues when it was originally created in October 2009, when it was proposed for deletion: no sources, no evidence or assertion of notability; may be a hoax, may be an ad for new iPhone app, may be both”. The page was deleted in September 2010 for using copyrighted material taken from hipstamatic.com (ironic, no?).
  • A cursory search shows that Richard Dorbowski has a Facebook page and a Linked In page. Both use the same photo of an older, overweight man with a receding hairline shoving food in his face. Both say he’s Chief Comptroller of Neenah Paper in Wisconsin. (There are three manufacturing facilities in Wisconsin, but I don’t think I’m quite motivated enough to call from Australia.)
  • The Facebook page doesn’t have that many posts on it, and they’re either by Richard or by Hipstamatic. No one else. Ironically, Richard installed the Facebook for Android application so I’m thinking he’s not a big user of the Hipstamatic app.
  • The few people searches I’ve done show no ‘Richard Dorbowski’ in the United States, let alone Wisconsin.

A whois on hipstamatic.com shows a creation date of 2 October 2009 (five days before the first Wikipedia entry was created), but the posts on the blog start in June 2007. The discrepancy is ‘explained’ in that interview with the guys from Synthetic who said, “His blog went offline just after we reached out through email, and we didn’t hear back until we finally got a phone number, which was over the summer (we have since helped him put the blog back online).” Great, except that while there’s a two-year gap at one point, when he returns in June 2009 Richard apologises for not having posted for so long. One month later (29 July 2009) he posts that on that day he met with some guys about a Hipstamatic app. So it doesn’t appear that Richard’s blog was offline during his hiatus or immediately around the time he is supposed to have initially met with Synthetic. There’s only been one post after the domain name registration was created. To me it looks like it was all created after the fact.

So my verdict? Fake. Fake fake fake fake fake. You might have gathered at this point that I’m really bothered by this and you might be wondering why. I loved the whole Blair Witch Project thing when it first came out, and I’ve loved other viral marketing initiatives like what they did with the movie AI. But this is different. In this one, they are using my emotions and my sympathies to hook me into the brand and champion their story. They are using me, and I don’t like to be used. Especially by marketers (and I am one!). I think I’d have less of a problem with this approach if it was a bit more obvious that it was fake. If I didn’t feel slightly stupid when I realised I’d been had.

I still love the Hipstamatic app itself and will happily snap away, giving them my money for cool packs of ‘film’ and ‘lenses’. But I probably won’t go out and recommend it to my friends. I don’t have any particular warm feelings or affinity for the brand, and I should have. Not because it has some kind of tragic and yet inspiring history, but because it’s associated with a great product. The guys at Synthetic threw that away.

I don’t think any marketer today can underestimate the importance of being honest with their consumers. You need to let them in on the joke, not make them feel that the joke is on them.

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Alex December 25, 2010 at 5.33am

couldn’t agree more. There’s a story in the Wassau Times about how the whole “hipstamatic story” is a fraud.

Cool marketing yes, but a little creepy the whole faking peoples tragic death to sell a product.

If this had been a major brand – say McDonalds claiming the Mcrib inventor dies before he could see its success, the media would be all over them…..

Still love the app – just not digging their marketing (not to mention their customer service kinda sucks! ;)

Daniel January 10, 2011 at 11.02pm

Hi Marie, nice article. I thought it was a hoax from the very first moment. Thus because the first thing I’ve done was trying to find more information and a real Hipstamatic on ebay. I don’t have a problem with the way they did it I just hate their service, there’s quite no response to all the wishes and bug reports in their faq-board website.

You named it: “You need to let them in on the joke, not make them feel that the joke is on them.” – I like that!

Anthony January 31, 2011 at 2.30pm

Hi Marie,

Yes, definitely fake – the whole thing stinks of a marketing scheme!

It would be funny if they didn’t create such a tragic back story. Something sillier and more outlandish would have been more tasteful.

By the way, I think the real giveaway is the fact that both hipstamatic.com and hipstamaticapp.com are registered to the same owner. According to whois:

Domain Name Owner:
Dorshorst, Ryan
125 E 4th St
Unit 100
Saint Paul, MN 55101
US

Administrative Contact:
Dorshorst, Ryan
125 E 4th St
Unit 100
Saint Paul, MN 55101, US
Phone: +1.7153555323
Email: retro_junk@mac.com

stelios February 5, 2011 at 3.27am

Nice article Marie,but i don’t think that the truth can hurt any feelings.Who cares about the history of hipstamatic app and a marketing cheating.The most people care to shoot photos with this.Do you think that Apple’s secret marketing war doesn’t exist.All the companies(including Synthetic) are living in a small hidden war.They try to sell things with the good and the bad way.Thanx again for this nice article showing us the truth behind.

dig it.

stelios February 5, 2011 at 3.45am

i must make a second comment.Reading the interview of synthetic people they say that they put a modern Canon(ef?) lens to this Hipstamatic 100.ARE YOU KIDDING ME PUTTING AN FD /EF/EF-S/ LENS IN THIS PLASTIC CAMERA????? Only this is a big prove of this never made camera.

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