Counterpoint on Stealth Marketing

A counter argument to stealth marketing, or buzz marketing or undercover marketing. The source article examines the ethics of stealth marketing.

From Church of the Customer blog.

Exposing stealth marketing

A respected management journal recommends lying and cheating as a marketing tactic.

No kidding.

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.

Authors Andrew M. Kaikati, a consultant with Accenture, and Jack G. Kaikati, Emeritus Professor of Marketing at Southern Illinois University, Edwardsville, write:

“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.]

Viral Marketing
* Definition: Word of mouth via digital platform.
* Stealth marketing usage:  Dr. Pepper’s Raging Cow campaign pays bloggers
* Buzz marketing usage: Hotmail, JibJab

Brand pushers
* 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

Celebrity marketing
* 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

Bait-and-tease marketing

* 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.

More on stealth marketing:
* 60 Minutes: Undercover Marketing Uncovered
* CMO Magazine: Under the Radar (free subscription required)

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