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Stealth Marketing

Stealth marketing, also known as undercover marketing, is a form of marketing where customers do not realise that they are being marketed to.

Considered to be a recent phenomenon, this form of marketing has in fact been around for many years, as illustrated by Brian Steinberg writing in the Wall Street Journal back in 2000:

“Undercover marketing is gaining ground as advertisers resort to non-traditional tactics to get their brands noticed and talked about.”

Stealth marketing can take place both online and offline. For example, people may pose as liking and therefore recommend a product on various internet forums, only for these people to in fact be working for a company.

Offline strategies include actors posing as ordinary people in busy locations, where they then convincingly use certain products and interact with nearby consumers without them realising that they’re victims of stealth marketing.

The Ethical Question

The main problem with stealth marketing is the ethical issue. As Malcolm Gladwell, author of “The Tipping Point”, nicely puts it:

“Well, there’s an element, obviously, of deception involved… Conventional advertising is about trying to charm us or trying to persuade us. And it’s the trickery part, I think, that makes this different.”

The Federal Trade Commission has also let its feelings be known, stating that the practice of stealth marketing is unethical:

“The failure to disclose the relationship between the marketer and the consumer would be deceptive unless the relationship were otherwise clear from the context.”

The Word of Mouth Marketing Association agrees in no uncertain terms, saying that stealth marketing is “a practice that we strongly condemn and oppose.”

This wealth of opposition is unsurprising when you consider that stealth marketing is inherently deceptive, intrusive and can ultimately erode the trust between people as they never know whether something is a company promotion or a real recommendation.

There are those that don’t see a problem with stealth marketing. Companies have pointed to evidence showing that people do in fact respond positively to this form of undercover marketing, often enjoying seeing new products and interacting with ‘company agents’. Whilst this may be the case, were the popularity of stealth marketing to surge consumers could be left wondering what’s real and what isn’t.

Taking the plunge – is it worth the risk?

Despite the obvious opponents major companies have carried out stealth marketing campaigns to generate buzz about certain new products.

For example, Sony Ericsson launched a stealth marketing campaign called “fake tourists” to promote their new mobile phone. Sixty actors took to the streets in 10 US cities, with a simple task – ask unassuming bystanders to take your picture. The aim was to enable consumers to interact with the product, and it certainly worked.

John Maron, Sony Ericcson’s marketing director, came up with the idea, and says:

“That was an easy way to create a very non-evasive interesting conversation with somebody without the pressure of it feeling, like, this is a pitch.”

Campaigns such as this can be extremely successful at creating buzz surrounding a certain product as it enables consumers to actually touch, feel and use exciting innovative products in a natural environment.

However, as Gladwell notes, this form of marketing relies on the fact that consumers are unaware that they are being marketed to. If they find out what is actually going on a backlash can result:

“I think that the moment when we discover we’ve been duped causes a backlash. Companies who engage in this practice are courting that backlash. And that’s a very, very dangerous thing to play with.”

Whilst there is deception in most advertising, such as cars on TV that look so much slicker than in real life, people are aware of this and the rules that surround mainstream advertising. Stealth marketing is different – people aren’t even aware it’s advertising, by nature its undercover.

After being told that he was targeted in a Starbucks stealth marketing campaign, John Flaherty was not particularly happy, and it is this threat of alienation that companies are risking:

“It just seemed to me like a nice friendly encounter, and it kind of restores your faith in your fellow New Yorkers. And then, to find out it was all fake, it was just kind of, I don’t know – I don’t like, I don’t like the ring of it.”

Do it well and stealth marketing is an excellent tactic – the key is to keep stealth marketing ‘stealth’. But next time a stranger starts talking to you, is a large corporation really behind that conversation?

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