Three weeks ago a video appeared on YouTube of what attested to be the Uzbekistani national football team training for a World Cup qualifying match against Australia – nothing as sinister or earth shattering compared to what generally appears on the video sharing site. But what drew much attention to the video was that it portrays the Uzbek players kicking incredibly at a ball target – should one player miss, he places his head in the middle for his teammates to aim at.

Was it serious? Is this really the training program for an Eastern European national sports team?

It turns out that the video was a viral produced and planted by creative agency Lowe to promote the FIFA World Cup qualifying series. According to its website, Many Aussies think that the Socceroos are sure to qualify, so we’ve adopted an unorthodox strategy: we’re promoting the opposition. They’re fierce adversaries capable of knocking Australia out.

Lowe claims that the video notched up 180,000 views within a short time of its release – it’s now up to over 300,000.

Lowe is not the first agency to use this tactic – in fact it’s been quite common in the sporting promotions industry in the US and Europe for a few years.

The now legendary Nike ad featuring soccer prodigy Ronaldinho kicking a ball into the crossbar from outside the goal square has been viewed over 25 million times.

EA sports creatively answered a YouTube video that criticised the fact that Tiger Woods in his game could play shots on water – so the company posted a video online of Woods doing just that. It was an instant hit and showed to users that EA were listening.

But not all have been as well accepted. Gatorade shelved an ad produced by Harvest Films of a baseball ‘ball girl’ catching a fly ball over the stand, however the ad leaked onto the net and has since had just shy of 700,000 views – an unexpected success considering it wasn’t supposed to see the light of day.

Some viral ‘campaigns’ haven’t been so obvious. Since late 2008, New Jersey Nets star Devon Harris has been the butt of a serving at a UK basketball training session that has been viewed over three million times, depicting Harris and young local in a impromptu one-on-one game, in which Harris, a seasoned NBA player, is ‘hustled’ by Tanner.

But there has been speculation among YouTube commentators that the whole thing could be a viral marketing stunt, especially given Tanner’s connections to the British basketball scene. The training session where the contest took place appeared to be sponsored by sports brand Adidas, but there doesn’t seem to have been any follow up or reaction from the brand.

Kobe Bryant’s effort of putting on Nike shoes and jumping over a speeding Aston Martin was also been met with scepticism. While the video has copped over 4.5 million views, the general online consensus was that it was too blatant a campaign to be taken too seriously (not that I think anyone actually did). It didn’t hurt the brand’s image but very nearly could have.

More recently, UK agency Wieden & Kennedy seeded a viral teaser for its new Nike 5 campaign, featuring a teen ‘nutmegging’ Wayne Rooney (scoring a goal through his legs).

The 30-second short film, shot as if it was captured using a mobile phone, sees Rooney and Rio Ferdinand playing a five-a-side match with some teenagers. The film acted as a teaser for the Nike 5 campaign, ends with the strap line ‘show your 5′ and drives viewers to the Nikefootball.com website, so is a little more transparent.

Is this way to produce a viral campaign without being dragged ‘naked’ through the streets (pun intended)? Maybe so.

The videos that work best are the ones that are entertaining and don’t scream ‘buy our product’ – more like, ‘here’s an entertaining video, oh and by the way if you like Ronaldinho’s shoes contact Nike at…’

This style of online viral marketing is increasingly taking a central role in major digital campaigns. To ignore this channel, it would seem, could be at your own peril.