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January 11, 2005
Exposing stealth marketing
A respected management journal recommends lying and cheating as a marketing tactic.
"Stealth Marketing: How to Reach Consumers Surreptitiously," published by The California Management Review from the Haas School of Business at the University of California-Berkeley, recommends reaching new customers via deceptive, covert marketing.
"Stealth marketing attempts to catch people at their most vulnerable by identifying the weak spot in their defensive shields.....[Stealth marketing] is considered to be a viable alternative to conventional advertising because it is perceived as softer and more personal than traditional advertising."
"Identifying the weak spot in their defensive shields" is just so... wrong. It's predatorial. It conjures an image of pedophiles luring naive or vulnerable young girls or boys into their cars with the promise of candy, not marketers trying to clearly identify value and build genuine relationships with prospects and customers.
Again, from the paper:
Brand managers looking to move beyond the traditional reliance on 30-second TV commercials should explore the feasibility of using stealth marketing techniques.....The future of stealth marketing is rather rosy since large advertisers are embracing the concept with open arms [and cites P&G's in-house agency Tremor].
This is the nightmare scenario for many organizers and members of the Viral Buzz and Marketing Association and the Word of Mouth Marketing Association. For several months, both groups have been debating the limits of ethical and unethical word of mouth marketing and its offshoots, buzz marketing and viral marketing.
A recurring question among those debates: How visible is the company behind the campaign and how transparent are its intentions? Many participants in that debate agree that stealth marketing is absolutely wrong. The sponsoring company should be clearly identifiable, with zero tolerance for any tactics that could be considered covert, sneaky or deceptive. (Some say it's OK to disguise the sponsoring company if it's associated with entertainment, ala the Blair Witch movie marketing campaign, but that's debatable, too.)
But the Kaikatis suggest, "The main objective is to get the right people talking about the product or service without it appearing to be company-sponsored."
Word of mouth marketing has enough components to confuse regular practitioners in the field, much less the people who occasionally write about it. Let's contrast stealth marketing which involves using undercover, covert means to create customer awareness vs. creative buzz marketing that also gets people talking but clearly indicates who is behind the campaign.
I'll outline the stealth marketing tactics and examples mentioned in the paper and contrast them with more ethical buzz marketing examples of the same tactic. [Click on the links for more detailed explanations of the campaigns.]
* Definition: Hired actors who approach people in real-life situations to slip them a commercial message.
* Stealth marketing usage: Sony Ericsson T68i camera phone campaign that hired actors to pose as tourists, Freedom Tobacco pays "leaners" in bars
* Buzz marketing usage: Mini Cooper hiring professionals to drive around cities with the car bolted to the top of a Hummer
* Definition: Paying celebrities or famous people money to covertly or overtly promote products.
* Stealth marketing examples: Political pundit Armstrong Williams being paid by the Bush administration to talk up No Child Left Behind, Lauren Bacall on the Today show talking about the drug Visudyne, Ann Wilson of Heart fame mentioning a weight-loss device called Lap-Band on The Early Show
* Buzz marketing example: Chuck Norris and Christie Brinkley star in infomercials for Total Gym
* Definition: getting people interested in something which is revealed later to be something quite different (my paraphrase as the paper's authors don't spell out the definition); it sounds vaguely like "bait and switch" which is illegal in most states
* Stealth marketing example: Mercedes-Benz fictional movie trailer
* Buzz marketing example: BMW mini-movies
Marketing in video games
* Definition: embedding brands and logos in electronic games, sometimes called "advergaming"
* Stealth marketing usage: Toyota and other car manufacturers pay for their cars to appear in Sony's Grand Turismo video game
* Buzz marketing usage: Electronic Arts's NFL license for Madden Football
Marketing in pop and rap music
* Definition: embedding commercial messages in popular music
* Stealth marketing: Rapper Jay-Z was paid to mention Motorola in his music
* Buzz marketing: Run-DMC's song "My Adidas." Adidas did not pay for this; the rappers just liked the shoes. (Lesson here: create a remarkable product worth talking, er, rapping about.)
For the California Management Review, promoting stealth marketing by mere fact of its publication could be excused as a case of out of touch editors who failed to recognize the growing demands of transparency and credibility. But, by publishing this piece, the Haas School has given an absolutely unethical marketing practice a measure of credibility.
The regents of the University of California should be concerned. Would they approve a teaching methodology that encourages law school students to lie to judges and juries? Or a political science course that encourages future government leaders to secretly steal from vulnerable citizens to fill government coffers? After all, when the "defensive shields" of citizens are down, that means they're easy marks.
Marketing "research" (I use that term lightly here) like this adds to the coarsening nature of an all-advertising, all-the-time marketing system. It perpetuates reptilian marketing practices that do not engage customers; it reinforces the misguided desire for fast-and-easy marketing solutions.
No offense to Messrs. Kaikati, but your viewpoint represents everything that's wrong with marketing today.
[Thanks to johnmoore for the tip on this paper.]
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I agree with you - a dangerous article.
First, because they employ problematic terminology quite off-handedly ("Stealth marketing attempts to catch people at their most vulnerable by identifying the weak spot in their defensive shields."), and they don't do any differentiating whatsoever between the different approaches. By recognizing differences between approaches, the article could have contributed to the debate about what is ethically acceptable in WOM marketing, and what isn't and might jeopardize both the consumer rights and the entire WOM marketing industry.
Instead it lumps all together, without any useful distinction whatsoever. Really great case studies (anyone want to argue against BMWfilms.com?!) stand right next to the lowest of the lowest (celebrities being paid to endorse pharmaceuticals in talkshows), as though they were of the same kind - all "stealth". That view is most obvious in their chapter on ethical issues - all approaches thrown together into that nasty pit "Stealth"! If that view persists, the WOM marketing industry will have a really hard time growing.
As far as the "risks" are concerned - they are still singing from the hymn sheet of "lost message control". Well, I guess you will agree that in the age of customer-generated media, message control is gone forever anyway. The "cost and audience reach" section is fairly amusing: "marketers can definitely reach a target demographic by advertising on television shows such as friends". That will be difficult when they are TiVoing or zapping to one of the other 300 stations... On the other hand, they uphold the myth that a WOM campaign costs next to nothing - that is just as wrong. If well-done and properly planned, they can be expensive. So basically, they're wrong on both ends.
But the one essential bit about well-done WOM is missing: when you do it right, you do it by establishing great connections with your customers. When customers feel valued and listened to, when they are included in efforts as opposed to being marketed at, that's when they will spread the word, with genuine enthusiasm! (Which takes me straight to the first VBMA Manifesto we had published last year, where we said just that: "Our goal is to foster genuine enthusiasm about brands and brand communications, which can spread through networks in a way that is enjoyed, appreciated and / or valued." http://www.vbma.net/mission.html )
Sorry for the long rant... but as you can see, I really agree with what you are saying, Jackie!
P.S.: And thank you loads for linking to all those case studies, helps me a great deal with my "library"!
Hi Jackie and Ben
I'd agree with what you are saying too, but why is the ethics debate surrounding Word of Mouth Marketing only being framed in terms of deception/transparency.
What about the marketing with minors as opposed to simply marketing to them? If you substitute the word children for minors then you get some idea of just emotive this issue is.
Certainly, this is an area which is potentially one which will end up being carefully regulated just as all other areas to do with employing children.
So if we are going to have a debate about discussing ethics in the Word of Mouth Marketing Industry then we need to discuss the ethics of offering children points or rewards to promote products and services on behalf of a brand. Let’s face it if McDonalds starting employing 13 year olds behind the counter there would be an outcry. So even simply engaging children in anyway to promote products and services is up for debate.
Now this seems to have escaped through the net as far as those who claim to be holier than though in this matters. My point being that if we are going to talk about ethics in this space then we need to be looking at all areas rather than just zoning in one aspect.
It will be interesting to hear your comments on this issue.
Jackie: Excellent post.
As well as not agreeing with the ethics, I feel a little amused by the slight sense of "aren't we clever" about the article. I do think marketers greatly overestimate the effectiveness of their stealth and their supposed talent for manipulating us.
Justin, sounds like you have some thoughts and ideas about the efficacy of word-of-mouth marketing and children. Do you have a post about it?
Actually my comments where about the ethics of Word of Mouth Marketing with regard to using children rather than the efficacy seeing that you were talking about WOMM ethics rather than metrics.
All I was saying that if you are going to talk about WOMM ethics then transparency is only one issue and perhaps the one that is in equal, if not more, need of attention relates to the use of children in Word of Mouth Marketing. Just wondered what you and Jackie had to say on this issue because you’ve been pretty forthright on your views about transparency but don't seem to have talked much about the using children for WOMM.
We haven't given much bandwidth to children and WOM programs, but it's an excellent topic.
There's definitely alot to talk about regarding children and word of mouth marketing. 60 Minutes covered this in a piece on tween marketing. They mentioned a marketing firm called Girls Intelligence Agency or GIA (and it operates covertly like the CIA). It has over 40,000 secret agent tween influencers nationwide. Very disturbing.
You can read the transcript of the 60 Minutes piece here:
Glad we agree that there's an important issue to be discussed regarding children and word of mouth marketing ethics.
I think we also agree that this is clear difference between giving someone a product, telling them : "do word of mouth for it and here is what to tell and how to do it" the way Bzzagent does and "here is a product we think you would enjoy discovering. Do or say whatever please you", the way influencer marketing does, as both Stephane Allard from Spheeris in France pointed out recently and you and Ben mentioned in your Six Ideas to BzzAgents post:
"While customer evangelism begins with a great product (or service), it's hard for most companies to sustain that passion, especially since sustained word of mouth is the chief contributor toward long-term growth. BzzAgents spread buzz, but they're like the hipsters who who make new bars cool. Soon they find a new place, and the party's over. In this sense, BzzAgent risks being seen as just another ad agency."
Perhaps a distinction needs to be made between Word Of Mouth Marketing (innovation, pricing, branding, distribution and promotion) and Word of Mouth Advertising (the promotion bit that the likes of BzzAgents do) or how about natural Word of Mouth versus Faux Word of Mouth ;-)
I wonder whether this distinction is being made in WOMMA's ethical guidelines for Word of Mouth Marketing.
My take for what it's worth is that total transparency in natural word of mouth is practically impossible. I also think that total transparency in word of mouth advertising is impossible too, simply from a practical point of view. I just can't see how the likes of Dave Balter can control the way that his BzzAgents spread their messages. He can direct them, incentivise them, even try and check up on them, but in the end they are 'free' agents. In fact, would their word of mouth be any more effective than advertising if they were transparent about their sponsorship?
So if you can't actually control transparency then isn’t a little bit disengenious to be saying that marketers need to be transparent in their viral efforts or the medium will be killed. Sure it makes you look like one of the good guys, but if you can’t enforce then it’s meaningless stance.
Anyway, I think where we disagree is whether the deception issue is anyway near SPAM-like pandemic proportions in the way that some, specifically WOMMA, seem to be making it out to be. Stories about our disintegrating social fabric and the breakdown of trust make great TV and help sell newspapers, but there just aren’t that many active companies in this area yet. I know because I, and others, spend a vast amount of my time researching this area. I’m not saying there isn’t a potential problem, but knee jerk reactions are not the way forward as they almost inevitably create more problems than they solve.
What I do think is absolutely essential is that any debate about WOMM ethics needs to make an important distinction made between savvy adult consumers and far more easily-manipulated youth. It’s the latter that need more in the way of the protection than the former, so it will be fascinating to see how WOMMA’s soon to be released ethical guidelines deal with this issue.
Anyway, food for thought and I would love to discuss these and other issues with you both and other stakeholders in this arena.
Yo Justin, what's the name of your blog? I'd like to add it to my blog log.
Blog away cuz you gots lots to say.
I too agree with Jackie, however I think there are some finer points being discussed here on marketing in general. It appears we are delving in the minutia of marketing... to which most don't separate so deeply.
The problem with WOM and Stealth and GIA and Buzz, revolves around if they do or do not have influencers. You can't just make WOM happen on a dime. If the product sucks, sooner or later people will find out, and it doesn't matter how many people you have screaming how wonderful it is.
What happens when the 40,000 tween sneezers lose their influence and edge? Stealth marketing relies on this same principle, if I have a sexy lady pushing me a drink and I think it sucks, guess what? I think her taste sucks, I still think she is sexy but I doubt that I would buy into her recommendations.
Either way... need to dedicate more time to this topic.
Great post Jackie,
Here's the latest viral marketing hit -- pherotones (pheromone ring tones ). Read the viral marketing timeline about Pherotones.
Hi there, I'm doing a project in college at the moment on whether to choose buzz marketing over stealth marketing and the moral/ethical conflicts involved in choosing the latter.
As a general rule,is stealth marketing avoided in professional practice only through ethical reasons or is there any international legislation preventing its use.
Is the ethical issue the fact the company isn't being forward about its involvement with the brand or is there something else?
I may be one of the worst cases of steath marketing hatred of all times. They may have intentionally destroyed my life (it has been) and I feel that they even tried to turn me into a homosexual, and bribed employers so I could not find a job so I would be a street bumb. I wrote a book called Advercities, outlining a lot of techniques. Please help me.
Please contact the FTC, or the Democratic or Repulican parties, not much sure weather or not they care in Canada. This truely is EVIL, and I am finally seeing some stuff on this blog that sounds about right. They find really vien people that are jaded and are willing to do alot of this stuff, movie extras, jeluos of the beatiful. LOTS of those I figure, wanna be "models",.. they are corrupting our youth.
An old post, I know but I felt like I needed to post anyway. I'd like further explanation of why BMWfilms.com counts as bait & switch marketing? I thought they were brilliant marketing and something entirely different from anything else at that time (especially since youtube and the like hadn't been created yet). Fallon may have gotten fired, but man they delivered on that project.
My comment in the post was that the BMW films are actually an example of good buzz marketing. The organization of the post may be confusing. For each category, I list an example of a stealth marketing tactic and then an example how to accomplish the same thing with ethical buzz marketing tactic. Sorry for the confusion.
I used to be so opposed to the idea of stealth marketing, and covert advertising, but after 2 years of bioelectromagnetic weapons abuse, I have learned that this is really just a diversion, if you have experieced the sounds of "people talking behind your back" at the shopping mall, or hearing the sounds of being in some sort of "beaty pagent" or given a really unrealistic label, with mere sounds in shopping malls, and in front of coffee shop patios, I have found out what this really is, and it is a technology called defered signals, and it is cabale for localizing, and restricting sound to a small area, using phase cancellation and electromagnetic plates. There is an active movement to get this technology publicised but it appears that the government is able to silence the media about it (and bullcrap it all over the internet). But there is a lot of reputable information about the abuse and organized crime surronding this. It may be quite true that the current administration of the government uses this same advertising technique during elections, all you have to do is realize that small, narrow bandwidth sound can be personalized to you (state your name and personal information) and casted into your environment, for cheaply enough to try to gain your vote, or simple purchase a product, sound waves are not expensive. The eqipment itself is, but it is an investment that pays for itself over time. Please help free the growth of our children, and remeber that the sick extreme of the cosumer model is indeed a homosexual male, and I think children deserve Dads, and may others do as well. I don't want my children, subject to this kind of abuse in shopping malls if their biometrics say there is a 9% chance that there ego may be expanded and use to become more like a fashion obsessed homosexual.
Hello, Rhys Hovey here again,.. about you "stealth marketing" VERY low tech compared to what is being done,. possibly by Proctor and Gamble,. maybe using Robson St, as their test area (Vancouver). Ultrasound is being played, at people against their will, and in the privacy of their own homes, much like is possible with Audio Spotlight,. I have proof actually,. I have audio recordings,. if you want go to www.youtube.com/rhyspaulhovey and listen for yourself,. computer automated psychological abuse. I've have gay porno played at my house and everything,. gross
Great article adn great find. I could see why they would say lying and cheating is a market tactic, but it is unethical.
I don't see stealth marketing or approaching people when they are "most vulnerable" as something bad or wrong. You could use the world vulnerable or approachable, no difference. In the world of marketing you are hunting down potential customers, that's just business. These tactics have always been around and always will be.
I've only just posted an article on writing product comparison pages for SEO benefit. Basically you mention lots of competitors and compare your own product(s) with theirs. This helps you get pages on your own site ranking for your competitors branded terms. This is (used to be) a stealthy way to attract traffic and I'm just wondering how the hell any government is expected to enforce stealth marketing laws? I can't see them enforcing the law to any extent. I think the government tends to think people are stupid these days and this is all part of the constant nonsense we are told is around to protect us. The average person is fairly wise to scams and will (should) be wise to most genuine internet scams. I think we should be protecting kids online and protecting users from real scams like ebay scammers and Nigerian gold scams.
If you get in touch with anyone about Nigerian gold you are stupid but people need protection from this more than stealth marketing. The worse stealth marketing I've ever seen was from BMW, trying to convince people that their 118d budget BMW is genuinely "The Ultimate Driving Machine"... If you believe that, no law or government will be able to help you, you are stupid.
Stealth marketing? People are are surprised and shocked that such a thing occurs? Oh please people wake up and realize that the world is really a big nasty place and you can trust no one but your mother and you'll be fine.
Stealth marketing? People are are surprised and shocked that such a thing occurs? Oh please people wake up and realize that the world is really a big nasty place and you can trust no one but your mother and you'll be fine.
I'm not sure I understand how Madden Football paying for the NFLPA licensing to have player names in its NFL video game is an example of buzz marketing.
Please elaborate. To me it seems the video game is fundamentally tied into that license and absolutely requires it to even function at this point. Not really a marketing tactic anymore.
New comment on an old post - but as a marketing researcher, I have to say that what we're seeing is a great snapshot on how hard it is to compete these days. There have always been shady marketers. But this post points out how much the line has blurred for some modern practitioners. It's not just the individuals who are going to such ethical extremes - it's the marketing management of some large corporations as well.