Jumio and the “Anti-Cash League”: Adventures in Viral Video

3/18/11Follow @wroush

“It’s dirty, covered in microbacteria and traces of cocaine … [it] fuels criminal activity … it may be green in color, but it certainly is not good for the environment.” What is this nefarious threat? It’s cash money, at least according to Sebastian Cole of the Anti-Cash League. Cole is the British expert featured in a video released this week by Jumio, a stealth-mode startup in San Francisco that’s working on new payment technologies.

Xconomy, a bit taken aback at the depths of the biohazard lurking in our wallets, contacted Cole by phone today for more information. “I don’t normally do telephone interviews, because of how incredibly dirty [telephones] are, but this is an issue I feel strongly about,” Cole said. He went on to claim that paper bills are only 50 percent linen and cotton fiber; the rest is “pocket lint, calcified dendrium, and dirt.”

“We’ve been going for about seven years now at the Anti-Cash League, and it’s our goal to stop the production of all paper and metal currency by 2020,” Cole said. “That’s an ambitious goal, but that’s what leagues are for, really.”

There’s just one little thing about Sebastian Cole: he isn’t British. In fact, he doesn’t exist—and neither does the Anti-Cash League. The video is a mockumentary produced for Jumio by San Francisco public relations firm LaunchSquad to help build buzz in advance of the company’s formal launch. And it may be working: the video has been viewed more than 13,000 times since it went public on Wednesday.

Jumio hasn’t said much about its actual post-cash technology yet, but it did get a blast of media attention this week when it revealed that Eduardo Saverin, the co-founder of Facebook, led a $6.5 million Series A investment in the company. The story was picked up by the Huffington Post and many other outlets, which led Web readers back to the video.

Jumio The End of Cash from Jumio Inc. on Vimeo.

You probably remember Saverin—he’s the guy played by Andrew Garfield in the Oscar-nominated movie The Social Network. Well, the other actor involved in the Jumio story is Nick Markham, a member of LaunchSquad’s video team, who also happens to act. He played Sebastian Cole in the video. I talked with Markham today—he gamely agreed to go into character to supply the quotes above—and he says the project allowed him to indulge one of his hobbies, developing fictional characters. “Usually I’m behind the camera, but every now and then it’s great to have an opportunity like this to start having fun with one of these personas,” Markham says. “It’s great working with a company like Jumio—they let us take it to an extreme.”

The video is cleverly made. It’s got classic shock-value images redolent of TV political ads, together with images and voice-over from an erudite Cole, lecturing on the evils of paper cash and the virtues of paying for even small items like a cup of coffee with credit cards or other electronic means.

But “to be clear, there is no real ‘Anti-Cash League’ or ‘Sebastian Cole,’” says Bettina Winters, vice president of marketing at Jumio. “We made this video to be provocative, viral and interesting, while also shining a very real light on the fact that we see cash as an outdated way to pay for things. We believe the future of money is purely digital and that, like many other mediums—eight-track tapes, CDs, books, et cetera—cash is kind of a dying form.”

Winters says that Jumio was joking—mostly—about the health and sanitary dangers of paper cash. “We’re serious that cash is an old medium and that it does present problems, the extreme being sanitary issues,” she says. “But we were intentionally extreme/tongue in cheek on the point to boost virality and interest.”

But was the Sebastian Cole video too effective? Among the nearly 80 people who commented on the Huffington Post story on the Saverin investment, only a handful seemed to recognize that the video was tongue-in-cheek. In fact, one commenter accused Jumio of using scare tactics. “Eduardo Saverin & company get a Grade D- on believability and an A+ on using fear tactics to line their pockets,” this commenter said.

But Jumio and its PR team aren’t worried about a serious backlash from the video—in part, they say, because it doesn’t stretch the facts very far. “Cash is dirty, it is inconvenient, it is all the things we said,” says Markham. “It’s just that we dialed up the drama.”

Jesse Odell, co-founder and managing partner at LaunchSquad, says the firm thinks of semi-fictional or mockumentary videos like the Jumio production as part of “a new way of thinking about what PR is.” But he says the approach wouldn’t be appropriate for all of the firm’s clients. “It’s definitely something we think about and get involved with for the right clients. But it has to be the right story and the right use of it, otherwise it falls flat.”

So, why did Jumio and LaunchSquad make Sebastian Cole a Brit? “We wanted someone who sounded very educated, but who would also be believably fussy and picky about all the dirt phobias,” Markham says. Adding a British accent, he says, made the persona “a little less irritating…we felt it was more natural for that type of character.”

Winters says, by the way, that the name Sebastian Cole is not a veiled reference to the 1998 film The Adventures of Sebastian Cole, about a New York teenager whose father undergoes a sex change operation. “Pure coincidence,” she says. “The team just thought it sounded like a great, credible, British-sounding name.”

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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