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Guerrilla Marketing: Brand Washing the American Dream

BrandsRecently decorated within a Time magazine article, the Center for Digital Democracy (you know, that one organization committed to the development and encouragement of noncommercial, public interest programming) likened guerrilla marketing to the "brand washing of America," a not-so-subtle reference to brainwashing techniques. Adbusters bemoans what it terms "cultural brand corruption," an unavoidable offshoot of alternative media activities.

Alternative advertising blurs the line between advertising and entertainment, between advertising and politics, between advertising and personal relationships.  These are all aspects of our lives that, upon objective reflection, most people become uncomfortable with having marketing inserted into.  In general, people like to know when they are being sold something.

Gauging Interactivity

Interaction in the marketplace is different from interaction elsewhere in life.  People are more wary and skeptical in the marketplace, and with good reason.  The market is where we go to spend money, hard-earned money.  We do not want to be persuaded into parting with that hard-earned money for something that we either do not need, or for something of inferior quality, or for a price higher than we could have paid elsewhere.  It's not like we're teaching social media marketing for dummies here, people.

To ensure that this doesn’t happen, people turn on a set of filters for viewing advertising that they don’t necessarily turn on for other aspects of life.  When advertising becomes mixed with other arenas of interaction, we may not turn on those same filters, and become more susceptible to the message the advertiser is giving.

This is exactly what advertisers want, and exactly why the alternative advertising market is so attractive.  It is also why alternative advertising is the subject of so much controversy, and susceptible to a greater backlash than other advertising markets.

Blurring the Line

The question for new media is simple: When do you cross the line between subtlety and subterfuge? Author Fay Weldon lost credibility when it was discovered she had been paid by Bvlgari to feature the brand in her latest tome, titled The Bvlgari Connection. Sony Pictures Entertainment took it on the chin when favorable critic quotes in movie ads proved to be works of fiction.

Lauren Bacall's blatant flacking for Visudyne, a macular degeneration treatment, on NBC's Today Show, prompted the competing CNN network to revise its disclosure policies. Even starchy IBM proved vulnerable to the unexpected pitfalls of under-the-radar marketing techniques. Street teams stenciling sidewalks as part of the "Peace, Love, and Linux" campaign garnered tons of press... and a $100,000 fine for defacing San Francisco sidewalks.

Dangers in Advertising?

Merging fact and fiction, truth and falsity, advertising and life is a dangerous game.  Advertisers want to be able to reach people without going through the normal filtering process.  To this end, they create clever content, games, and diversions that also double as advertising.  However, the product being advertised in these new and creative ways must be satisfactory, at the very least, and really ought to be something above and beyond what was expected by the consumer.  If the product is subpar, the backlash against the particular company will be intense.

Perhaps even more troubling to alternative market advertisers is the possibility for massive backlash against the genre in general.  Much like television ads have seemingly played themselves out in an environment in which ignoring them is a viable and easy-to-obtain option, they worry that the alternative market will suffer a similar fate, and more quickly.  Because of the delicate balance that most alternative marketing schemes must maintain, it will be easier to tip alternative advertising into oblivion.  It is precisely because of the heights that alternative campaigns have managed to scale and so quickly that they are susceptible to greater falls.  The higher the pedestal, the harder the fall.

These flops in the alternative advertising market demonstrate a particular, and perhaps peculiar, facet of the market: the demand for truth is much greater in the alternative ad market than even perhaps in the traditional advertising forums today.  They've also help squander selling and listing opportunities for domain owners because everyone fears emails, nobody likes banners, yet everyone loves social media - a rather small window of advertising hope for millions of domain advertisers.

Truth in Advertising

These kinds of campaigns have their own unique set of advertising ethics.  The biggest issue in marketing campaigns designed to create word of mouth buzz is disclosure of connections.  Because word of mouth is supposed to be a personal connection, people will trust what is said more.  As has been noted, trust of people saying good things about a product increases if the persona saying the good things is outside of the advertising world.

So, if you think you’re getting an objective opinion from John Doe about Product Q, you may be more inclined to trust it than if you saw a television ad containing the same information.  This is because you assume John Doe is a regular person, like you.  However, if John Doe is actually being paid by the company that produces Product Q, your opinion of the accuracy of any information he gives you may change, sometimes markedly. 

Disclosure of who is working for whom, and who is actually just excited about a particular product becomes a sticky area in advertising ethics.  If the company discloses that they are paying people to talk up their product, they risk losing the buzz that they create.  If they do not disclose, they risk a backlash against their opaque marketing practices that take advantage of the general population’s trust of the general population.

A Step Too Far

Perhaps the most egregious example of a good thing gone awry is the New York couple, Jason Black and Frances Schroeder, who attempted to auction off naming rights to their son for $500,000. There were no takers.  The couple said they were merely attempting to finance the raising and education of their child through a practice that has become increasingly common and popular throughout all areas of life: corporate sponsorship.

The public reaction to this display of what was deemed to be the most base, crass, money-grubbing behavior scared away any company that might have been interested in take the couple up on their offer.  We as a society are not ready to start turning real people over to corporations, and one can only hope that we are never ready for such a step.  You can see more about guerrilla marketing, social media marketing today and other popular titles when visiting today.

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