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.

Effective Airport Advertising

In the last few months, I’ve been doing a lot of traveling and, unfortunately due to some very long layovers, have had plenty of time to peruse every inch of a few airports including all of the airport advertising located in them. A lot of the advertising seemed out of place due to a confusion of target audience and messages, but I stumbled upon two strong examples of solid targeting and execution that make their advertising at the airport very effective.

Steelcase

The first came on an 11 hour delay at the Gerald R. Ford International Airport in Grand Rapids, Michigan. There, I discovered that local office furniture manufacturer, Steelcase, had created multiple business centers to allow business customers the opportunity to experience their products first-hand while waiting for their flight.

Steelcase lounge area at Grand Rapids airport with chairs and desks
Steelcase's lounge at the airport in Grand Rapids, Michigan. I spent a lot of time in here!

HP Folio

The second came at the Denver international Airport where I found a free charging station advertising the HP Folio and how, you wouldn’t need to be there if you had an HP Folio. The installment of the large ad could have been cleaner and the individual booth signage was hard to read due to glass glare, but it is still an excellent execution of HP targeting and understanding the needs of their target market.

HP advertising at the Denver airport
Thank you HP for the free charge!

 

A close up shot of two ads for the HP Folio
Great messaging!

Congrats Steelcase and HP on some very effective airport ads!

Medical Series: Guerrilla Marketing Idea for Dentists, Chiropractors, and Other Doctors

I’m a huge fan of guerrilla marketing campaigns and this is one of my favorites  because it’s so inexpensive, it could be very effective, and it could be modified for dentists, chiropractors, and other doctors.

A paper mouth wrapped around a tree. You can tear off a tooth and it has the dentist's name and contact information on it.
This could be modified for other types of doctors or other businesses.

For Dentists, Chiropractors, and Other Doctors

This campaign could easily be modified to work with other types of doctors. For example, for a chiropractor, the wrap-around could be a spine. My two cautions here are:

  • Make sure you take a look at what the display will look like after some of the flyers are gone. Will it still look ok? Will people still understand?
  • Make sure the placement of the ad is positive for your business. This is a common  mistake in outdoor advertising and a mistake in this area can land you on Failblog or another site.  Make sure that you look at the businesses, landscape, and other advertisements around yours to make sure there isn’t a contradiction or other issue with your placement. For example, placing an advertisement for a restaurant serving unique meat selections next to an animal hospital would be a very poor choice in outdoor placement.

In addition to doctors, this idea could be used for a wide variety of businesses. For a nursery, for example, you could have a wrap-around of trees.

Expense Considerations

Although there will be some design and printing costs (please don’t skimp on these!) the majority of your expenses for this project are going to come in the form of time that you spend working on this.  Here are some expense considerations:

  • You will need to apply for permits or talk to various city leaders to get approval to put these up. This is a crucial step to maintaining positive community relations, avoiding fines, and not having your stuff taken down the minute you put it up.
  • Not only will you need to put these up, but you will need to monitor them and replace ones that are vandalized or used up with new ones.  You should do this at least once daily, but you might have to more than daily as well.
  • You need to pay for extras and have them on hand when the above happens.
  • Weather could also affect your ads, so pay for weatherproof materials and monitor the displays for weather issues.  It would probably be well worth the extra money to pay for more weather-proof printing methods.

So even if something like this isn’t perfect for your business, hopefully it will spur some creative ideas of your own.  What are you doing that’s unusual to promote your business?