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Secret Agents of Capitalism

Is that hottie really flirting with you, or is it undercover marketing?

By Harmon Leon

IN THE future (i.e., time beyond right now), there's a good chance we will all be corporate branded. Large companies will sponsor our lifestyles in order to endorse their products. We'll become walking embodiments of a corporate label, going about our daily lives promoting products and consumerism. But the fun doesn't end there, for this will all be done under the radar, so cunningly disguised that the average consumer will not know they, in turn, are being marketed to. Hurrah for the future!

What the heck is undercover marketing in the first place?

We've become a cynical age. Yes, we're cynical, cynical bastards. We cynical bastards are immune to the onslaught of print and television advertising. We hiss when ads are shown in theaters before movies. We get TiVo just to avoid pesky commercials. Traditional advertising has been mocked and parodied everywhere from Saturday Night Live to Adbusters. That's why the point, the pure cunning goal of marketing teams is to have their product marketed to us ... without us even knowing! It's not a hard sell, it's not a soft sell, uh-uh; it's a secret sell.

Years ago, the controversy over marketing used to be over subliminal advertising--a refreshing can of Coke stuck into a frame of a movie or a naked sex orgy within an ice cube of a gin ad. Then came the '90s, with books like No Logo focusing on globalization and corporations buying up everything in order to dominantly plant their company name in the forefront. We cringed at Papa John's Cardinal Stadium. We shivered at the Staples Center and the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am. No Logo criticized how our local public schools have even taken on corporate sponsorship. But that was of a different era, my friend. Now it's more personal--and insidious. Now the marketing is done by your neighbor.

Undercover marketing, which falls under the umbrella of stealth and guerrilla marketing, could be anywhere. Maybe at your favorite local bar? Or perhaps moms hired to sit at Little League games to boast of the merits of a laundry detergent? To a degree, this type of deceptive marketing spawns an Orwellian (literary reference) paranoid environment where no one can be trusted and interactions with strangers in public places are made to be questioned; is the random exchange for the benefit of a corporation's product?

So what on earth is the goal of undercover marketing?

The goal of an undercover campaign is to generate buzz. Yes, "spontaneous" peer-to-peer word of mouth can reach consumers who isolate themselves from other forms of media. And unlike those who are cynical about the conventional media, these folks will tend to trust word of mouth.

Undercover marketing requires little money down for a large potential payoff. It's a cheap and effective way for companies to generate the aforementioned buzz about their precious product. The consumer's sense that this recommendation was spontaneous and unsolicited, and the resulting feeling that "one good turn deserves another," is the driving force behind the buzz. So, the "bought and paid for" aspect of the transaction must remain hidden. Overall, the person doing the marketing must look and sound like a peer of their target audience without any ulterior motive for endorsing the product. Very sneaky indeed! (It's like putting the big Mickey Mouse face in front of the evil corporation Disney.)

When it works, undercover marketing does exactly that: the targeted cynical candidate will not only begin using that product but will also tell their friends about it, inciting a planned viral effect (meaning it spreads like a virus). It looks, on the surface, spontaneous, yet it is precisely planned in the boardroom (most likely with charts and graphs). The derogatory term for this is "roach baiting"; the unsuspecting consumers are the roaches who take the bait, then spread it to their friends and families.

Yes, the days of traditional marketing and advertising are over. Forget your celebrity spokespersons or million-dollar commercial spots during the Super Bowl; human beings are the new marketing tool of tomorrow. Right now (the moment you're reading this), you could be unexpectedly marketed to by someone in your immediate surroundings (don't look, because they're staring). It's a new era of guerrilla and undercover marketing. Hold on to your wallets, folks, because anything goes!

Hurrah for the bloody Internet!

Forget those unevolved days of spam email trying to sell us everything from weight loss gimmicks to boner pills. Marketing companies are now paying people to swarm the Internet like flies promoting their larva. Yes, products are marketed on the Internet without us even knowing!

If, say, it's a new video game, marketing companies will enlist kids to go undercover into chat rooms and post rave reviews on bulletin boards, boasting the joys of a product in order to generate a "buzz" and to create the much-mentioned "peer-to-peer" viral marketing.

"It defeats the purpose if they say they're working for us," says Alex Josef of Zeitgeist Communications in L.A. In order to promote a new ambiguous video game (name withheld) in an effective, low-cost manner, companies like these aren't hiring people to pose as a peer in the gaming community. They cut to the chase. Zeitgeist will hire actual gamers, through market research, in order to enlist the ones who are really and truly enthusiastic about the type of game they are promoting. Then they are sent off to the Internet.

"Unless they're enthusiastic about the game, we don't want them working for us because there's no point. If they don't like the game, we're not asking anyone to pretend like they like it," Josef explains in his low-key manner. "It's not like fake promotions, it's more like conversation. Just like anyone who's into a game and excited and was into the bulletin boards and chat rooms and would talk up a game. Same kind of thing, except they are being compensated for it as well."

Yes, there is compensation. For trumpeting the merits of New Ambiguous video game, the kids are compensated with gift certificates and a copy of the game, making it a very low-cost marketing affair. Zeitgeist generally doesn't do this type of marketing for a game they don't consider good, and finds it a good way for smaller companies to generate the buzz and groundswell when they don't have the big marketing dollars.

"The most important thing is people are talking about it," clarifies Josef. He considers what his teen marketers do online to be formulaic and pretty cut and dried. When they hit the boards, it's stressed that they should not slam other people's games, that they should be honest, look at the high points of the game and state what they really like about it.

"It's a casual tone, not like you're pitching the game," says Josef. "We pretty much tell them to go to the bulletin boards, chat rooms and message boards they normally go to because they already have an established name on them. Basically, it makes them credible, and people are going to listen to what they say. Sometimes, we'll get sort of a group chat going on a message board, or a group back-and-forth string going." (Something to think about the next time you're in a sex chat room--maybe the person you're communicating with is only promoting a certain brand of Kleenex.)

Following the links provided to me by Zeitgeist, I checked a few sites that were inhabited by their team of undercover marketers promoting New Ambiguous video game, to see how it's done.

How surprising: every review for ambiguous video game on Amazon.com boasted an outstanding five stars:

A GAME YOU CAN'T REFUSE *****
I just bought the new ambiguous video game, and it blew me away. I usually don't go for the games with isometric views, but after trying out the demo, I had to get this game!

THIS GAME ROCKS *****
To say I'm impressed by this game just doesn't do it justice. This is by far one of the best action/strategy games to come along in years. This game has it all! I will be playing the demo everyday until the game comes out!

Moving on, I followed some links to major sites in order to check out the posted reviews on the gaming bulletin boards to see what kind of group exchange would be going on:

Hey, I read ambiguous video game is coming out next month and wanted to know if anyone knows if it's still coming out this month, or any sites where I can read more about this game?

In the very next post, the enthusiastic author of this post answers his own question:

To answer my own question, I just read on gamefaqs.com that the new date is 3/3/04.

If there's a critic of New Ambiguous video game, they are immediately put on the right path by their so-called peers.

You probably won't be hearing anymore about this game until it's released and quite frankly, I don't think it'll do all that great. Throw demo in recycling bin. Utter shit.

No way. From the looks of it this game is gonna be awesome. The game is going to be a hit. I can't wait for the full version to come out for multiplayer games. I suggest everyone try ambiguous video game!

There are agents of capitalism out there!

The general purpose of advertising is to have a persuasive power over seemingly clueless people. In a sense, all advertising is about deception. It's a grass is greener on the other side scenario. Advertising makes you feel like your life would be better if you could be just like that happy man on TV with his shiny, band-new car. Basically, we all want what the cool kids have. But undercover marketing is different; it's the commercialization of a human relationship. Sure, I could babble on (babble, babble, babble) about how purely deceptive it is. But you be the judge. Here are a few examples of some actual undercover marketing campaigns:

SCENARIO NO. 1: An ad agency hired by a Vodka company placed trendy New York hipsters in bars throughout the city in order to sing the praises of the drink and get other patrons to sample the spirits themselves (in stealth marketing terms, they are known as "leaners"). Here's a sample conversation that another agency had hired actors spout in a bar as paid shills in order to subtly get a word of mouth buzz going about a bottled water:

TRENDY WOMAN: I feel so great, so real. It's this drink.
EQUALLY TRENDY FRIEND: Would you feel the same way with soda?
TRENDY WOMAN: No! I feel alive!

They clink glasses. Curtain.

SCENARIO NO. 2: A consulting firm in Cambridge, Mass., planted subway riders with newspapers featuring fake back-page ads for their company. The idea was to give the impression the firm is well established and very successful.

SCENARIO NO. 3: A company called Beer.com produced 50,000 bottle caps featuring its name and left them in bars during such peak party times as Mardi Gras and spring break.

SCENARIO NO. 4: The Hasbro company recruited 1,600 cool kids, aged 8 to 10, in Chicago and paid them each $30 to play a new hand-held video game called "Pox" and tell their friends about it.

SCENARIO NO. 5: A company in Montreal called Gearwerx hired two actors to board a crowded bus during the morning commute and loudly discuss what they did the night before. And fuck-me-sideways, wouldn't you know it, their scripted conversation included a hearty dose of plugging the product. Yes, it's a TV commercial come to real life.

SCENARIO NO. 6: An amiable tourist in Times Square asks you, "Would you take a picture of me and my girlfriend?" as he hands you his Sony-Ericsson picture phone. The amiable tourist then shows you how the picture phone works, boasting its merits, and even offers to email you product information.

It's real-life flippin' product placement!

When mentioning the Sony-Ericsson ruse of hiring actors to pretend they're genial tourists, Eric Hauser, of the Bay Area marketing company Swivel Media, animatedly states he is not a fan of that campaign.

"I think it was deceptive marketing. I don't appreciate it," Hauser says. "Being in the field, it negatively reflects on what we do. And what we do over here is put together solid programs that are based with good ethics. If you're talking stealth marketing, realistically it's done with the proper ethics in place as opposed to deceptive. They are still thrown under the umbrella of stealth marketing, and it's just unethical and deceptive."

Hauser has been running Swivel Media for the last five years, scooping up some of the largest clients in the country who are now requesting his services.

"People will become the main medium of advertising," he states. "That is our guiding principal at this company. So whenever you can get a handshake and a smile behind your brand, that's what makes it happen. We run ethical programs over here. They're cool. They're creative. They're cutting edge. But they're ethical." Hauser enthusiastically shares that his type of experiential marketing is so freakin' hot right now, with 150 billion dollars floating into the marketing genre last year.

"We're not a company that started out traditional and said, 'Oh my God, the money is shifting.'" Experiential marketing's overall purpose is to achieve traditional marketing objectives using nontraditional tactics. "We're an emerging market, we're taking over," he adds, saying experiential marketing is at the forefront of the industry. "Rule one, and this is the premise of the company I run here: People are the medium of advertising in the future. Forget everything else that you know, OK. Traditional media is great, but it's going to turn into the supplemental role."

Hauser is such an innovator in the industry he's even created exciting new terminology to describe what he does. "I'm a non-er. I coined the phrase non-er, which means I'm a nontraditional media. I coined the phrase started using it a couple of days of go, people are loving it. So I'm running with it. I'm a non-er, dude, that's my new name."

How the hell does this non-er do it?

"We just pioneered a thing we call Brand Shake Marketing. Using humans as the key delivery tool to relay the functional attributes of the product to satisfy the consumer's terminal needs," Hauser says. "That's a lot of marketing speak for putting the proper handshake and smile behind the brand."

On face value, guerrilla marketing can't go mainstream. It goes against the definition of it, really. It's born from the underground. It's under the radar. Hauser's first step into experiential marketing is to properly hire the staff that's already integrated into that lifestyle where the core of the subculture is resistant to getting a marketing message.

"That in itself is somewhat clever--not really so much stealth, just clever," Hauser boasts. "You have a product which is a great product and what you have to do to effectively reach these kids is to deliver the messaging in a form or a fashion which they will respond to without being turned off. Because at the end of the day, you want them to like your product and buy your product and not to get pissed off at your product."

A company recently approached Swivel to market to the DJ community. So what Hauser did was to develop a campaign to market to these kids without them thinking they're being marketed to.

"We get the DJs on board so the DJs will do some things for the brand and subtly insert our messaging. We will go ahead and take care of the cost of the DJs [and] CDs they want to distribute, and therefore we will have some light branding on there and some product messaging."

Swivel will then go ahead and design the artwork for the DJ and produce a slight ambient brand name with a logo on it that's not the center of attention. "We'll also provide these folks with equipment that they use to help them stay up to state of the art. Because what happens in certain segments, especially in the DJ community, it's a hierarchy that exists, man, and if you lose credibility you're freakin' shot."

So it's real-life corporate sponsorship of a DJ (without anyone knowing), much in the same way athletes are sponsored; it's just gone one step further into our music clubs.

"Basically it all boils down to one thing: find the people who influence the other people and get them talking about your brand," Hauser says. "It's getting them on board our team and saying we got some great stuff we think you'd want to use. We want to make sure you like it; we'll go ahead and let you use the equipment; and we don't ask anything of you, because, you know what, the kids are smart enough to look at the equipment these people are using."

Let me correct that. Yes, this is much better that corporate sponsorship; it's real-life product placement. Why, it's done in movies, so why not along side two turntables and a microphone?

"So the trickle-down effect is that it winds up boiling down to the white suburban kids who end up buying the equipment. They want to have what the popular DJs have, and if we properly integrated our product, and we've done it in such a subtle way, then they don't know that it's been done."

Are the DJs supposed to give the kids a sales pitch along with endorsing the products? "They don't have to do anything, man; they have to keep it real, dude, just keep it real. I don't want anything done differently than anything else." Hauser explains. "So they're not doing anything that's deceptive. They're using stuff that they like. And you know what, when the kids come up to them and see the brand name on the side, it's simply legitimate. We're not paying people to talk lies. We're just playing it straight up. If the product is good enough, it will sell."

There's a pre-qualifier for the DJ to promote the product. Swivel will do market research and get a group of 30 DJs in a room. Fifteen of the DJs will love their equipment. Guess who gets to use the equipment? I'm putting my money on the 15 DJs who love the equipment.

"True word of mouth, that's p-to-p marketing, dude. So now I got a DJ who's got our equipment; he likes our equipment, that's why he's using it. It's the same exact conversation. I want face-to-face interaction with my target demographic. I want people out there who really like my brand. Somebody who really doesn't like the brand, then I don't want to give them my brand to use. They are not invited into the program. So we maintain integrity of programs like that."

Hauser stresses that at the end of the day it all boils down to one thing: relating to a demographic and then understanding and speaking their language (as I could tell by his continual use of the word dude). A lot of times it requires fully integrating his staff into that lifestyle.

"It's done in an up-front, honest manner. There's nothing deceptive about it. We're not putting fake tourists on street corners."

Though the DJs will end up with the free equipment, in other programs kids will simply do it for free shwag. If they're dealing with a record label, they just want to be compensated with CDs. It doesn't cost a thing--a tremendous cash savings for Swivel's client. Guerrilla marketing also only works well with certain products. It boils down to knowing who your market is and executing properly in that arena. Like, what the hell was IBM's agency thinking when they went out and spray-painted penguin logos on the sidewalk in Haight Ashbury?! Do you think they're going to reach their target demographic by spray-painting IBM logos in Haight Ashbury? It takes much more than that.

"I consider what I do a kinetic art form," Hauser philosophizes in an Orwellian reflective moment. "We're tasked with an awesome responsibility as an experiential marketer. We get to create life experience. So whether these people realize it or not, we're weaving our experiences into their lives. That's an awesome task."

Looking at it as an art form allows Hauser to create his "magnificent programs" and then watch them flower. He maintains the integrity of his programs because he wants his art form to stay intact. But what are his thoughts about the future?

"When I'm running a program for a car company, I want that guy out there to be the living, breathing embodiment of that brand. If it were Volkswagen or Audi, I want it to seem as if an Audi TT just freakin' sprouted up and became this guy named Tony. And Tony knows everything about this car, and he is the proper representation of this brand," Hauser summarizes. "Tony is basically a living, breathing embodiment of that brand."


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From the May 12-18, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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