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Cents & sensibility: Stealth marketing

Once upon a time, advertisers relied on the 'big three' (television, radio, print) to sell their products. Ads were reserved to TV screens, radio airwaves and newspaper pages. It was simple. It was effective. It was innocent. How times have changed.

These days, consumers are presented with marketing messages in the back of a taxi, the door of a toilet cubicle or on a flight to Frankfurt. Not to mention the paradigm shift of online and viral campaigns. Advertising has become as insidious as it is ubiquitous.

And therein lies the rub. More information means fewer uptakes. With consumers bombarded by advertisements, marketeers are finding it more difficult to connect with them.

But worry not, for advertising types always have an angle, and they've thought their way out of this one with a dubious new method of marketing. It's known as 'stealth marketing', so called because the consumer has no idea they are being pitched to. Marketeers recruit a middleman to send the message: celebrities, trend-setters and even people such as you and me.

It's the subject of recent cinema release, The Joneses, which follows a perfect family who induce acute lifestyle envy in their suburban neighbourhood. They dress in the latest designer labels and their home is a showcase of up-to-the-minute gadgets. All is not what it seems, however. It transpires that the family is, in fact, working for a stealth marketing company.

To some, the film is a far-fetched satire and dark meditation on the grip of consumer culture. Actually, it's closer to fact than it is to fiction.

Stealth marketing has been used by advertisers for the best part of the past decade and while it breaks the cardinal rule that consumers should know that they are being sold to, it's been utilised by a rash of blue-chip companies.

Sometimes it's obvious: the product placement in Lady Gaga's Telephone music video; the fawning review on website TripAdvisor which contrasts with a hundred other scathing ones.

Sometimes it's not. According to 26-year-old Julia Royter, she was paid by BlackBerry to flirt with well-dressed men in a New York bar.

She'd ask unsuspecting men to put their numbers into her phone, essentially luring them into an unwitting product demo.

"I was with a bunch of hot girls and we would just walk into bars, whip out our BlackBerrys and try to get guys to look at them by flirting," she revealed. "We'd say, 'put your number in my phone and I'll totally call you'."

Needless to say, she never did.


Another mobile phone company's stealth marketing campaign received attention for all the wrong reasons.

Sony Ericsson used undercover marketing tactics in 2002 when it hired actors who masqueraded as tourists in cities across the US to sell its new camera phone. The actors would approach strangers to ask if they'd mind taking their picture. While they were being snapped they'd espouse the virtues of the phone.

It mirrors a scene in The Joneses when the family ask a passer-by to record them with their mobile phone so that they can send a video message to their grandmother.

Sony also alienated customers when it was discovered that a blog purporting to be written by 'Charlie', a 'designer/artist/playa' who set up the site to convince his friend 'Jeremy's' parents to buy him a PSP for Christmas, was in fact produced by the electronics giant.

Devoid of capitalisation, riven with spelling mistakes and punctuated with textese and Ebonics, a choice line read: "we started clowning with sum not-so-subtle hints to j's parents that a psp would be the perfect gift. we created this site to spread the luv to those like j who want a psp!"

It was later discovered that the blog was engineered in a boardroom rather than a teenager's bedroom. Sony was quick to issue an apology.

The anonymity of the web has made it an ideal realm for marketeers to masquerade as consumers. Closer to home, beauty blog, Beaut.ie, is inundated by posts from companies purporting to be consumers.

"While we don't moderate comments on Beaut.ie, as a general rule, we do sometimes have a problem with small local Irish businesses (and with small international ones as well), whereby they think it's fine to log-on and leave positive comments pretending to be consumers of their own products or slagging off their competitors," says co-editor Kirstie McDermott.

"It's nearly always possible to spot it as it's so incredibly clumsy, so we delete those sort of comments immediately. For us, it's constant vigilance!"

Other brands sell products by recruiting trendsetters whose lifestyles are as covetable as the free clothes and accessories they are given to wear. A number of youth brands are known for fostering relationships with DJs, models and graffiti artists.

Of course, the most influential people of all are bona fide celebrities. Just consider the net worth of the Oscars goodies bag -- €70,000 -- to get an idea of the impact of celebrity endorsement.

Brands know that cheesy testimonials and brand ambassadors only go so far. The most effective means of pushing a product is when the celebrities look like they bought it of their own volition.

Witness the recent photos of actress Eva Longoria who, along with Victoria Beckham, has been signed up to front the LG Fashion Touch phone.

She was pictured in a Los Angeles sunglasses store taking pictures of herself with the phone . . . with the paparazzi assembled outside. Only, when it came to taking personal calls, she used another phone.

Other marketing companies create 'word of mouth' or 'buzz' marketing networks whereby ordinary consumers can sign-up to receive free products and samples which they then tell their friends about.

Word-of-mouth marketeers Bzz Agent insist that their agents must disclose their agent status. Only, when the ripple-effect starts, there is no distinction between advertisement and recommendation.

Dubit is another word-of-mouth marketing agency aimed at 13 to 24 year-olds. They claim their campaigns can "improve the lives of those who take part and those around them".

You'd be forgiven for thinking you were reading about a charity drive. Actually, their insiders are incentivised to market products such as Dr Pepper and Fanta. Again, Dubit insists that their insiders are transparent about their affiliation with the company. However, they are capitalising on an impressionable age bracket, whose concepts of ethics and morals are, in the most part, not yet fully developed.

Dubit recently courted controversy over claims it is using children to sell junk food. It denied the "misleading" allegations, saying that "no-one under the age of 16 has ever been allowed to promote any products that are now deemed high in fat, sugar and salt or involved in any campaigns that are inappropriate for them".

Ergo, children over the age of 16 are. According to marketing consultant Peter Lawless, of 3r.ie, the ethics around stealth and buzz marketing are hazy. "I don't think they're right. You're encouraging people to buy things without their knowledge."

While the European Advertising Standards Alliance require that "buzz marketing needs to clearly identify that it's there for commercial purposes", a harder line has been taken in the UK with the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008, which targets "sharp practice and aggressive selling tactics".

Stealth and buzz marketing has permeated all the advertising channels, which has made it difficult for bodies to regulate it with one all-encompassing rule. More to the point, suspicion has to be aroused before the regulators can step in ...

The Joneses is in cinemas now