Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Viral marketing makes one pundit nauseous

You know advertising’s old sensibilities are turning to dust when the Rolling Stones appear in an ad for a Mercedes-Benz mini-van, as the band did in a New York Times full-pager today. But that’s nothing compared with the latest frat-boy marketing ploy from Burger King, which prompted advertising columnist Seth Stevenson to blast the chain’s zany agency as a passel of tricksters and liars who no doubt forget their mother’s birthday, if anyone would even admit to being their parents. And if his suspicions are correct, Stevenson is being easy on them.

As he reported in Monday’s Ad Report Card column < Masked - Is Burger King trying to put one over on me? By Seth Stevenson>, Stevenson started receiving e-mail queries at the end of September from “readers” who wanted to dress this Halloween as the wooden-faced king that appears in Burger King’s current television ads. Any idea about where they could buy a mask of the Whopper-loving monarch?

Before long, Stevenson had fielded six or seven of the requests, including one that that included misspellings like “comercial.” And that “smelled pungently fishy,” he asserted, adding that he's a big fan of BK’s new campaign.

“Why were these readers so eager to dress as a corporate mascot?” he wrote. “Why did they get the idea at the exact same time? Why was no one asking about, say, Geico caveman costumes? And wouldn't it be infinitely funnier to dress as the Dove Ladies?,” the full-figured real women who now star in the soap’s ads.

Smelling a rat along with the fish, Stevenson called BK’s agency, Crispin Porter + Bogusky, and mentioned the queries to the shop’s highly regarded team. In an astounding coincidence, they told him, Burger King had just started selling a king’s mask on its website for $9. And the minimal costume went on sale at almost exactly the time Stevenson had started receiving the queries.

Somewhere, Rod Serling was likely savoring a Whopper at that very moment.

Stevenson said he out-and-out asked the agency if had sent the e-mails as one of its viral-marketing ploys. After all, this was the same shop that once dressed someone in a chicken suit and put him on an unadvertised website where visitors could command him to do things like dance or hit the deck for a dozen push-ups. It was Crispin’s way of selling chicken sandwiches.

“The PR guy answered, ’Not that I know of,’” wrote Stevenson. “His mealy-mouthed tone convinced me that my suspicions were justified.”

Indeed, “not that I know of” is one of those smoke-screen responses, like “I can’t be quoted as saying that,” or “that’s not my recollection.” It’s a slick way of saying, “Could be, but I’ll be damned if I say so.”

Stevenson admits “there’s a chance that I’m wrong, and that these e-mailers—of their own volition—suddenly, earnestly, and simultaneously wondered if they might buy Halloween masks from a fast-food conglomerate.” But his suspicions were strengthened by word from Crispin that the masks had sold out, as if BK is so popular that anything it offers is a sales hit. Right. How about those chicken baguette sandwiches?

The irony, as Stevenson admits, is that the ploy has worked despite his condemnation. “For now, Crispin gets precisely what it wanted: I'm writing about their fricking Halloween masks,” he noted.

But the viral-marketing ploy—if that indeed is what it was—is only fostering a groundswell of concern about the fundamentally deceptive form of branding known as buzz marketing. Lawmakers are already calling for outlawing or regulating the practice.

That’s a high price to pay for what could better be called shenanigan promotions.

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