If, as Orwell said, advertising is the rattling of the stick in the swill bucket, then the so-called “stealth marketing” movement is just disguising the stick to look like a pig that other pigs want to date.
Of course, surreptitious advertising, fake news and hidden vested interests have been around since there were products, ideas and votes to sell. Today's silly terms like “stealth marketing” and “viral buzz” are just the current labels that ad execs and book-pushers use to make corporate sneakiness sound like a hip new way of doing business.
But it isn’t new. And in the hyper-connected transparency of the information age, it isn’t even that stealthy.
Take, for example, the stealth marketing efforts of Sony Corporation. Most recently, the company paid graffiti artists in several cities to adorn abandoned buildings with unattributed spray-paintings of bug-eyed cartoon characters riding the PlayStation like a skateboard, or licking it like a lollipop. Within weeks, a national Associated Press story about the “controversial graffiti ads” in Philadelphia quoted angry anti-blight organizations, community activists and city officials who demanded that Sony stop breaking zoning and illegal billboard laws. And people are today defacing the graffiti ads everywhere they see them.
Previously, Sony BMG Music Entertainment secretly installed information-tracking spyware and destructive malware into millions of their consumers’ computers through CDs played on disk drives. After Sony first shrugged off the issue, a flood of outrage on Web sites and blogs quickly generated national news coverage and some 20 class-action lawsuits. This week, Sony agreed to cash settlements and promised to not make any more CDs with hidden spyware.
Sneaky Sony. But not stealthy.
As the hide-your-marketing hype reaches its inevitable peak, Sony’s very public image problems are bound to be followed in 2006 by other companies that ignore this reality of the information age:
Your stealth marketing will be only as successful as the reaction consumers have when they realize who’s behind it and what you’ve been up to.
And, yes, they will find out.