by: Josh Hawkins

Has BMW gone too far with a recent viral market stunt to promote the BMW 1 Series?

Despite a chilly response from the Word of Mouth Marketing Association (WOMA), the campaign has succeeded on several fronts: positive coverage in the auto biz trade press, blogosphere chatter, viral distribution among a younger demographic.

The campaign centered on an online video mockumentary (produced by GSD&M Idea City) that chronicles the adventures of a small Bavarian town attempting to use a giant ramp to literally launch the new BMW from Germany to the U.S.

The controversy, if there is one, stems from a BMW corporate decision to let the campaign run for several weeks without acknowledging that the video was created by BMW. According to WOMMA, the number one rule for marketers engaged in guerrilla tactics is to be upfront and transparent about the identity and the origin of any campaign communications. The danger in not being up front is the risk of damaging trust and tarnishing the brand reputation, even the possibility of instigating a consumer backlash.

The BMW campaign was so obviously a spoof that the risks in staying mum for a few weeks were very low. But it does raise an interesting question about the nature of guerrilla marketing and the responsibilities that fall on the brand to be transparent. The very nature of guerrilla marketing requires tactics that result in the unexpected, surprise, a certain degree of under-the-radar planning and execution.

How transparent do you need to be when it comes to guerrilla marketing? When BMW was called out and questioned directly about their involvement of the campaign, should they have come clean? Probably. But the next question has to be would the BMW campaign have been less successful if the video included a corporate logo watermark or "sponsored by" disclaimer? What's the threshold standard for transparency? I think it's obvious that applying the strictest standard for transparency would have taken something away from the impact and humor of the creative.

Standards and ethics are critically important, especially as word of mouth marketing tactics becomes more commonly used by brands trying to reach audiences through a hyper-fragmented media environment. But it's also important to acknowledge that there's definitely some gray area that needs to be explored to extend these standards to allow for creative marketing campaigns that are successful exactly because they catch people off guard, defy expectations, and get people talking.

You can read more about the campaign from Stephanie Kang's article in the Wall Street Journal.

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