Worth a read

Stealth Marketing. Fair play or Foul move?

The Hollywood movie ‘The Joneses’ raised awareness of a form of marketing which some marketeers regard as fair play, and many consumers would consider morally reprehensible, if only they were made aware of its existence.

In the film, the Joneses are a seemingly perfect family who move into an affluent gated community and appear to be living The American Dream, showing off all the latest and best branded gear, gadgets and gizmos which their friends, neighbours and colleagues are mightily impressed by. Trouble is, they’re not a family at all, but a bunch of actors working undercover for a stealth marketing agency – creating buzz, as it’s called in Word of Mouth marketing circles. Such ‘brand ambassadors’ promote branded products to an unsuspecting, high Social Networking Potential audience who are unaware that the ‘ambassadors’ are being paid to kick off a viral word-of-mouth campaign by the brand-owner.

As you might expect by their very nature, stealth marketing activities per se keep a pretty low profile, but many major consumer brands have employed the technique in the last decade or so, online and offline. As consumers have become ever more desensitised to the nature and volume of conventional advertising and marketing techniques, brand owners have resorted to more surreptitious means of getting their message across. Some have done so successfully as their covert operations have gone unexposed, but some have suffered the backlash of the duped consumer …

Sneaky marketing exposed …

The Sony Ericsson ‘fake tourist’ campaign – 60 actors were employed across ten USA cities to pose beside tourist landmarks and ask passing strangers to please take a photograph of them with the latest Sony camera phone. What appeared to be a genuine favour request was in fact a subtle marketing exercise – the helpful passers-by actually product-sampled the new camera as the actors expressed how impressive it was and actually promised to email further product details, which exposed the sham and disgruntled many good samaritans.

The Walmart ‘flog’ – a fake internet blog (a ‘flog’) supposedly written by a couple touring the USA in a camper van, parking for free in Walmart’s car parks across the country, and blogging about the warm welcome and generosity they received from Walmart store staff on their travels. In fact, the blogs were written by Walmart themselves, and their deceit was exposed.

The ‘fake ads’ campaign – a consultancy firm was caught out employing people to ride the subways reading newspapers which featured fake back-page ads for their company. Far less costly than booking a press campaign, the technique gave fellow commuters the impression that the firm was successful and well-established – until it backfired when the truth was uncovered.

Some consider undercover marketing immoral as it deprives the consumer of having the choice whether to freely engage with the brand or not. Some go further and suggest that it is illegal. In the UK the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008 forbids ‘falsely claiming or creating the impression that the trader is not acting for purposes relating to his trade, business, craft or profession, or falsely representing oneself as a consumer” Offenders risk a £5,000 fine and up to 2 years in jail if they continually offend and ignore the dictates of the Advertising Standards Authority.

Stealth Marketing – under the radar, but not underhand?

But is stealth marketing merely an exaggerated form of product placement? Is it OK for celebrities to receive financial reward for driving a certain car, wearing a particular fashion label or iconic wristwatch without disclosing their relationship with the brands concerned? Or for rappers being paid to include references to certain drinks brands in their music lyrics and YouTube videos?

Ironically, for ‘purposes of realism’ many popular brands feature in the film ‘The Joneses’ – who knows if they paid a tidy sum to appear …?


Andy Sellers is founder and Creative Director of S&® the brandvertising agency, and a ‘Seriously Creative’ Consultant.