Saw The Joneses over the weekend. This movie has kicked up a bunch of articles about stealth marketing and who's using it. As their tagline says, They're not just living the American dream, they're selling it. From MovieWeb:

The story, a social commentary, centers on a picture-perfect family that moves into a suburban neighborhood and immediately becomes the toast of the town, loved and envied by all. But the reality is they are a commissioned fake family put together by a marketing company as a way to introduce new luxury-level products to neighborhoods around the world.

Now, this isn't really a new approach, brands have been using stealth marketing for quite sometime. BzzAgent created some controversy when it first started a few years back because their agents were not disclosing the fact that they were promoting a product. Or look at this example from today's NY Daily News:

It's happy hour, and Julia Royter, a pretty 26-year-old actress, flirts with a well-dressed man in a midtown bar. After a few minutes, she relents and hands over her BlackBerry Pearl for him to enter his number. But she'll never call.

It's all a crafty promotional trick called stealth marketing, an ethically dubious practice that has regained the spotlight with Friday's release of the film "The Joneses."

Royter is being paid to flirt. She's part of a covert ad campaign for BlackBerry that attempts to drum up interest in smart phones by putting them in the hands of attractive, gregarious young women who push the product without the public's knowledge. (You can read the rest of this story by clicking on the link below.)

William Gibson, in his book Pattern Recognition, has a character who also gets paid to flirt with men to sell products. My friends in the liquor business tell me this has been going on forever. While researching this post, I came across Hijacking friendships for a pizza the action, a fake restaurant promotion for the Yellow Pages. Yes, the Yellow Pages still exists. The more recent debate about "sponsored" posts on blogs

There are many question about stealth marketing and its use by marketers. During presentations at the Lab, I used to mention the Gibson book and talk about a world where my daughter has to worry about whether or not people were her friends or because they wanted to sell her something. That's a scary world to live in.

What I think is worse about this whole WOM push is that somehow people believe it's not advertising, that it's something different. Here's the definition of advertising according to Wikipedia --

Generally speaking, advertising is the paid promotion of goods, services, companies and ideas by an identified sponsor.

So, if you are hired and paid by a company to create a WOM campaign, then that is advertising. It's not word of mouth marketing. In fact, I go as far as to say there is no such thing as word of mouth marketing. Instead, I believe that WOM is the outcome from doing something else well. Create a great product, people talk about it. Deliver a great service, people talk about it. As I said almost 5 years ago, WOM is the outcome of a great product telling a great story.

As we get bombarded by messages everywhere we go, we turn off the message. In 1971, Herbert Simon said What does an abundance of information create? A scarcity of attention. So, the more messages that we get, the less we pay attention. The less we lay attention, the more ads brands want to deliver. Before you know it, we're in the death spiral of more advertising and less attention. So, advertisers turn to stealth marketing in the hopes that they can short circuit this process.

And that's how we end up with things like this -- Splinter Cell stunt goes bad, armed police called -- as a promotional vehicle. Sure, someone is happy about the amount of press they got, but I'm not sure they would've felt the same way if this guy was shot by the police.

And you know what, these stunts can actually be a lot of fun and create a positive engagement with the brand. A few years back, Interference put lifeguards on street corners in NYC to tell everyone to get out of the water because of sharks. It was a great promo for Shark Week. Fun, engaging, drove the message. And a real connection with the brand.

But brands will see tactics like stealth marketing as the next wave and I can assure you that if this really catches on, we'll see a lot of stealth marketing companies starting up in the next few years. Because creating fake experiences as stunts to gain attention is a whole lot easier then creating compelling, authentic and relevant brand experiences.

And yes, we enjoyed the movie.

Pattern Recognition, William Gibson, Book - Barnes & Noble
Stealth marketing: When you're being pitched and you don't even know it!
Undercover marketing - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Stealth marketing, where everyone is a salesperson

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