October 4, 2002
BOB GARFIELD: There was a time when the 30 second TV spot could really move the dial for consumers. In marketing-speak that means "make people buy things." But any ad man will tell you that the cost to make a TV spot is going up while the number of people watching any given one is going way down. In the media-saturated 21st Century print, radio, even TV may be losing their power to sell, so what's a marketer to do? Well, forget the media. OTM's Jad Abumrad takes a look at viral marketing where the message is spread mouth to mouth.
JAD ABUMRAD: The following is a dramatization. [AMBIENT SOUND NIGHT CLUB] You're at your local dive, and you've managed to get a seat at the bar. Score. Things get better. An attractive woman taps you on the shoulder, hands you 5 bucks and asks you to order her a drink.
WOMAN: Excuse me. Hi. Could you order me a Veggie-water with Vodka?
JAD ABUMRAD: Suddenly the beer you're drinking seems so average.
MAN: Huh?! What kind of drink is that?
WOMAN: I'll tell you a little secret. Veggie-water makes a great cocktail mixer.
JAD ABUMRAD: The two of you chat for a while; nothing comes of this interaction. But you're feeling good about yourself, so the next day you tell a friend about the attractive woman who bought this obscure drink. He asks what kind of drink; you tell him. He tells his mom who tells her Yoga instructor and soon they're all trying it!
JONATHAN RESSLER: The exponential power of word of mouth is phenomenal.
JAD ABUMRAD: This is just the sort of scenario that Jonathan Ressler specializes in. He's the CEO of Big Fat Promo, Incorporated. Oh, I forgot to tell you. That attractive woman in real life is actually paid to be what Ressler calls "a leaner."
JONATHAN RESSLER: They're aspirational but approachable -- so they're not super models; they're just kind of people that look like they fit.
JAD ABUMRAD: "Leaners" get their name because they're hired by companies like Big Fat to literally lean over the people sitting at the bar and strike up a conversation about a product. The goal, according to Jonathan is to circumvent their traditional media ad glut and get the product in front of people when their advertising force field is down. Next step: turn those unsuspecting targets into unknowing evangelists for your product. And it doesn't just happen in bars.
JONATHAN RESSLER: You might come home and see a whole bunch of boxes from some on line and catalog retailer sitting by the podium where your doorman is [...?...] - subconsciously think - Hm! Boy, a lot of people are ordering from-- X.com. Now you don't know that they're empty boxes that we paid the doorman to keep there.
JAD ABUMRAD: A successful campaign produces that mystical substance -- buzz. Something which 10, 15 years ago was thought to happen naturally, unexpectedly; now it's carefully orchestrated through a series of usually covert product placements. But sometimes companies can't help themselves and brag about their in-person promotions. Vespa, for instance, revealed a campaign where they sent beautiful people to bars on scooters with the mission of getting as many phone numbers as possible. The next day the beautiful people never called, but a Vespa dealer did. Needless to say, some people in the ad world are not pleased with this type of trickery. Ad commentator Kate Kaye is one. She outlined her complaints in the 35 page missive Sales Pitch Society. KATE KAYE: The idea of people becoming essentially media buys on the same level as a billboard or a television spot in the mind of the advertiser is really upsetting.
JAD ABUMRAD: Herein lies the debate. Does this type of in-person, often surreptitious advertising compromise personal relationships or does it actually give consumers a fighting chance? AMANDA KECKONEN: I feel like it empowers the consumer. I do.
JAD ABUMRAD: Amanda Keckonen is the marketing and promotions director at a night club called Spa.
WOMAN: It gives the consumer an opportunity to push back.
JAD ABUMRAD: Push back how?
WOMAN: Push back like ask questions.
JAD ABUMRAD: But who knows to ask questions? Maybe people just want to have a quiet beer at the end of the day, and it's those type of moments that are being stolen from them! Shouldn't consumers be allowed to have a place where they won't be pitched?
WOMAN: It presupposes actually that we did have that place before and we've lost it; and I don't know that, that our society was ever free from marketing in one form or another. Farmers used to paint advertisements on their hogs; patent medicine companies would buy that space. [LAUGHS]
JAD ABUMRAD: I guess that tells you that marketing is very adaptable. You can trace the modern roots of in-person promotion to Edward Bernays, the Father of Advertising. In the 1930s, at a time when it wasn't kosher for women to smoke in public, Bernays sent a thousand debutante women to an Easter Parade smoking Lucky Strikes.
SAM EWEN: And that one act, in the press that was covered after that, sort of changed America's smoking habits.
JAD ABUMRAD: Sam Ewen, a Bernays admirer, is CEO of Interference, Incorporated, an alternative marketing firm in New York City. He says that the new interest in so-called viral marketing is partly due to Generation Y. According to a study by the marketing research group ESOMAR, Generation Y is an ad man's paradox. While they're increasingly resistant to traditional TV ads, ironically they don't mind being commercials themselves.
SAM EWEN: It used to be sort of a stigma to, to be a sellout. These days when you look at commercials, the goal is to sell out.
JAD ABUMRAD: Take Chris and Luke, the first college students in America to have their tuition sponsored by selling themselves as walking billboards for a major corporation. They spent a year looking for a buyer. CHRIS: Luke and I had, like we ma--first made our announcement, and then like right off the bat we did about 300 radio interviews searching for a sponsor.
JAD ABUMRAD: This is Chris. Luke couldn't make it because of chemistry class. The two high school buddies eventually settled on First USA. I have to say, myself, I don't know whether to be impressed or disturbed. And do you get that reaction a lot? CHRIS: Not too often. The most people who get disturbed think we're just getting like 40,000 for free and we're not doing anything.
JAD ABUMRAD: In the case of Chris and Luke, the brand message is overt. They lecture at college campuses; spend 12 hour Saturdays doing radio interviews. They're just like celebrity spokespeople, only they're not celebrities. But Jonathan Ressler of Big Fat prefers his in-person advertisers to be under cover. The object is to slip in, plant the message and slip out without arousing the slightest suspicion.
JONATHAN RESSLER: And, and by the way -- it is everywhere. There's a lot of people doing it.
JAD ABUMRAD: Really!
JONATHAN RESSLER: Yeah.
JAD ABUMRAD: So this is more common than, than we realize.
JONATHAN RESSLER: For it to be effective, you never know it happened. So-- you don't know -- I could be doing it to you right now. I could be talking about something right now--
JAD ABUMRAD: Come to think of it -- maybe he was! With ad budgets shrinking and TV commercial-phobes turning to technology like TiVo for relief, what's left for the agencies to do except get reporters like me to do the heavy lifting for them? For On the Media, and God knows who else, this is Jad Abumrad.