Stealth Marketing: Where is the ethical line?

A Narrative

You wake up in the morning, check your Facebook page, and read how one of your friends discovered a really cool new protein bar that they love and you make a mental note to try it next time you hit the store. At the beach later in the day, a couple stops you and asks you to take a quick video of them with their cool new mini-camera so they can post it on YouTube. On the drive home, you turn on the radio and hear your favorite song and it makes you crank it up and sing along. When you get home, you relax on the couch and turn on your favorite news station only to hear that your favorite pro-athlete has a condition that may affect her future in the game. But, luckily, she’s found a treatment that is working and should be back to her competitions soon. Later that evening, you have a pre-dinner drink and meet a very attractive woman. She invites you outside for a smoke and then offers you a cigarette from her pack. Later, at the club, you wander into the bathroom and silently curse your fellow clubbers because the bathroom floor is strewn with energy drink cans they were too lazy to throw away.

What you don’t realize is:

  • Your friend on Facebook is a pusher, paid by the protein bar company in free bars to post positive comments on his social media sites.
  • The couple at the beach were paid actors who asked you to take the video so you would willingly try out the technology of a camera that was just introduced.
  • Your favorite pop song included lyrics about a particular brand of clothing, which the pop star was paid to insert into her song.
  • The athlete really does have a medical condition and the medicine they are promoting did help them, but they are talking about it because they are being paid by the drug company to do so.
  • The very attractive woman was an actress paid by the cigarette brand she offered you to get you to try the cigarette (writers note: I don’t endorse smoking at all).
  • The energy drink cans were purposely thrown on the club bathroom floor by paid promoters to make you think people at the club are drinking them a lot.

Think the above doesn’t happen? Think again. This is the world of stealth marketing and its use by major companies is growing very rapidly as you, the consumer, learn to tune-out traditional media.

Is it ethical?

Stealth marketing raises a lot of ethical issues about advertising integrity and consumer groups are beginning to fight back against, what they consider, subliminal advertising. But the question is, where is that line? Is it ok to spread false rumors about a movie to increase ticket sales (Blair Witch Project)? Is it ok to pay actresses to go to popular bars and request only certain brands in a noticeable way in a crowd to try to influence the other bar patrons?

Are we really to a point where we have to ask women and men at the bar if they are paid promoters? Photo from Flickr: Parker Michael Knight

A potential solution

I don’t really have an answer, but I do have a thought: One option is to apply the reasonable man standard used to determine most advertising deception cases and apply it to stealth marketing. Using this methodology, a stealth marketing campaign would be deemed as going too far if a reasonable man (woman) would be upset if they found out about the marketing effort. So, for example, would a reasonable man be upset to find out an energy drink company had strewn cans on a club floor purposefully? Probably not. Would a reasonable man be upset to find out the pretty woman who had pretended to be interested in him was just trying to get him to try a cigarette? Yes, I think so.

That’s not to say using the reasonable man standard barometer doesn’t have its issues. Consumers may not understand the larger impact and thus not get upset or it may be difficult to determine if or how upset a reasonable man would get. But, I believe it’s better than what we have now, which is nothing except self-regulation. And, if the narrative above scares you as much as it does me, then you’ll agree that something needs to be done.

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