Smoke without fire

Bizarre, December 2000

It was going to be the dope dotcom, but it turned out to be a smokescreen for a marketing scam. Tim Chapman gets fired up with iToke

When it comes to internet business ideas, it's a fair bet that if something seems too good to be true, it probably is.

Take iToke, the company that promised to bring pot culture into the new economy by taking orders for cannabis online. With the goods delivered by a network of vans and cycle couriers, the company promised security, reliability and quality to affluent smokers (http://www.itoke.co.uk). It's a venture that could, obviously, be a very good thing indeed.

iToke is the brainchild of Tim Freccia and Mike Tucker, Seattle-born entrepreneurs with a string of European advertising and media ventures behind them. The company planned to launch its services in Amsterdam in June, with the rest of the world to follow. The world's media, craving the latest scoops on the heady excesses of dotcom hysteria, published a string of straight-faced stories on the company.

Prank sensors a-tingle, I contacted Freccia a few weeks before the launch date. Freccia was adamant that it was all above board - credible investors were in place and acting as the firm's best lobbyists in negotiations with various governments over the legal status of the venture. Of course, no names could be given.

When I mentioned that any possible feature on iToke would be published just after the launch, no more was heard from Freccia. And on the day of the launch, a new statement appeared on iToke's website, letting the cat out of the bag.

"We've done what we set out to do - identify, establish and merchandise to a market that we believe has tremendous spending power and has been overlooked," Freccia said in the statement. "By building a brand and targeting it toward this market, we've been able to pull off a substantial market study for a fraction of the cost than by more traditional means."

In other words, the whole thing was a stunt to promote their own marketing services and to collect a mailing list that, the pair said, drug enforcement as well as advertising agencies would kill for.

It was a let-down not only for those gullible stoners with their WAPs at the ready, but also for us jaded media watchers who had bets on veteran hoaxer Joey Skaggs being behind it.

Skaggs has been pulling hoaxes on the mass media since the 60s (http://www.joeyskaggs.com). His most recent project, the memorial theme park company Final Curtain (http://www.finalcurtain.com), garnered even more uncritical press coverage than iToke.

Skaggs's hoaxes are always for the noble cause of exposing the laziness and gullibility of the mass media, however. iToke's appropriation of traditionally anti-corporate media techniques for its own business reasons leaves more of a sour taste, not unlike that left by the fake Mahir-style sites set up as part of an advertising campaign for Lee jeans.

The three sites - http://www.rubberburner.com, http://www.supergreg.com and http://www.borntodestory.com - were designed to create some viral buzz for an upcoming Lees dungarees campaign. Given the outlandish nature of so many personal homepages, many web users were fooled - even Bizarre, which put RubberBurner in the prestigious Internutter slot. The shame of it.

But at least most people know when a joke's run its course. The statement admitting the scam was soon removed from the iToke site, as Freccia and Tucker revised their original material to claim they would launch in September, making no reference to the earlier statements.

The venture again garnered acres of uncritical press coverage. When the second launch date came and went, Freccia and Tucker managed a new excuse - they were being threatened by established dealers. The duo also said they had failed to find a high-profile backer, despite earlier claims. The fact that their business model would, even in Amsterdam, be illegal was barely mentioned.

But dotcom dopeheads too busy or too chilled to nip out to the nearest street corner to score might take some consolation in the fact that hoax e-businesses have a habit of turning real.

At the height of investment hysteria this spring, US journalist Ted Fishman wrote what he thought was an obvious April Fools column for Esquire. He profiled FreeWheelz, a dashing New Economy business that gives away free cars - with the catch that the cars are plastered inside and out with adverts for sanitary towels or humanely-harvested deerskin jackets (http://www.freewheelz.com).

An obvious satire, Fishman thought - except that he was then bombarded with people wanting to sign up for the service and by venture capitalists wanting to back the business. And it turned out that there were at least three companies working on the same business model for real. Esquire sold the FreeWheelz site to one of them, FreeCar.com, for $25,000.

When it comes to internet business ideas, it seems that there's no such thing as too daft to be true.