We the Undercover Marketers

The Joneses were portrayed as the ultimate stealth marketers (source of image)

After reading Martin Lindstrom's Brandwashed, my curiosity in the phenomena of stealth marketing was piqued. Also known as undercover marketing, roach baiting and buzz marketing (albeit a darker shade), stealth marketing is a form of guerrilla marketing where "targets" do not realise that they're being marketed to. In other words, the stealth marketer does not inform his or her friend/family member/colleague that he or she is part of a bigger syndicate.

In stealth marketing, ordinary citizens like you and me become pitchers of products and services to our friends, colleagues and family members. We organise parties and invite our neighbours, show off our shiny new objects or dazzling new hairdos/set of gleaming pearlies/lean and toned bodies, and espouse (in a subtle manner) the brand names of these products and services that we endorse. Often, there is some form of incentive for the covert marketer to do so and this varies from case to case.

If you've watched the movie "The Joneses" (released in 2009), you probably would have seen the more negative side to this. Here's the trailer for those of you interested to learn more:

The truth, however, is that stealth marketing is fairly commonplace in the US. Huge conglomerates like P&G, Sony Ericsson and Starbucks practices it. In P&G's case, some 225,000 teens are members of "Tremor" while about 600,000 mums were enlisted for its "Vocalpoint" programme. While these members are not paid a commission, they enjoy free products and samples in return for participating in the programme.

What's the chief difference between stealth marketing and network marketing, direct selling or Multi-Level-Marketing (MLM)? After all, isn't Word-Of-Mouth (WOM) the chief reason why people buy these days?

The main reason why stealth marketing is more contentious than the other two is the degree of disclosure. In the case of Tupperware parties, Avon or Nu Skin seminars, it is often quite clear that participants go into these with their eyes open. While some may not agree to their methods, direct distribution is a huge business worldwide, and it does help people with limited means to make a decent living for themselves.

On the other hand, the hidden and opaque nature of stealth marketing makes it appear to be less ethical. In the case of the Joneses (from the phrase "keeping up with the Joneses"), the movie revealed that the true identities of these stealth marketers were hidden from their friends and neighbours as they moved from upscale neighbourhood to upscale neighbourhood, spreading their "love" for brands.

As marketers and consumers, how do we get around this issue then? Does it mean that the promise of "citizen marketing" is no longer viable?

I suppose this ultimately lies in the extent of one's disclosure. If you're an agent of company ABC for product XYZ, make it known to those whom you are presenting the product to. A good example is BzzAgent in the US, a company which matches consumers to products of their interest. In their website, they state the following tips for their agents:

"Get people talking by sharing your honest opinion through face-to-face conversations and online via sites including Facebook, Twitter and blogs. Remember to always disclose that you’re a BzzAgent and to keep the spam in the can...."

Of course, if you're a true fan who will not be receiving any form of benefit, the issue of stealth marketing no longer applies to you!

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