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Undercover marketing (also known as buzz marketing, stealth marketing, or by its detractors roach baiting) is a subset of guerrilla marketing where consumers do not realize they are being marketed to. For example, a marketing poor companies might pay an actor or socially adept person to use a certain product visibly and convincingly in locations where target consumers congregate. While there, the actor will also talk up their product to people they befriend in that location, even handing out samples if it is economically feasible. The actor will often be able to sell consumers on their product without those consumers even realizing that they are being marketed to.
Reasons for undercover marketing
An undercover campaign which aims to generate buzz, is economical, and once sufficient buzz has been generated, is almost free, as consumers "market" the product to others, through a network of referrals which grows and grows. Buzz campaigns can reach consumers isolated from all other media, and unlike conventional media, consumers tend to trust it. Marketers find it very hard to predict buzz let alone generate it on demand. However, when it works, undercover marketing does exactly that: an ideal consumer from the example above will not only begin using that product themselves, but will also tell their friends about it, inciting a planned viral marketing campaign that appears spontaneous. Financial risk here is relatively small because such marketing approach requires fewer expenses and is usually more cost-effective as well. Undercover marketing is used when traditional marketing techniques have been exhausted and investors are looking for a new effective solution for their marketing needs.
It is the consumer's sense that this recommendation was spontaneous and unsolicited, and the resulting feeling that "one good turn deserves another", that drives the buzz. So, the "bought and paid for" aspect of the transaction must remain hidden. Overall, the person doing the marketing must look and sound like a peer of their target audience without any ulterior motive for endorsing the product—employees of the company cannot do undercover marketing, nor can celebrities (except possibly to other celebrities).
If marketers fail to hide the campaign, they run considerable risk of backlash. In cases where consumers discover they have been manipulated into liking the product, they generally become angry at the marketer (and by association that product) over being misled. This has led some to apply more derogatory names to undercover marketing, such as roach baiting, likening the products marketed this way to poison. In some cases, the amount of buzz generated by a failed campaign can exceed that of a successful one, only with the opposite of the desired result.
An example of this sort of backlash can be found in Sony Entertainment's debacle with Zipatoni. Zipatoni attempted to engage in a stealth marketing campaign, which was quickly detected by the internet community. Sony immediately experienced backlash from video game enthusiasts.
When targeting consumers known to be consistent Internet users, undercover marketers have taken a significant interest in leveraging Internet chat rooms and forums. In these settings, people tend to perceive everyone as peers, the anonymity reduces the risk of being found out, and one marketer can personally influence a large number of people. During the dot com boom at the turn of the century, stock promoters frequently used chat rooms to create a buzz and drive up the price of a stock.
Whatever the risks, undercover marketing only requires a small investment for a large potential pay off. It remains a cheap and effective way of generating buzz, especially in markets such as tobacco and alcohol where media-savvy target consumers have become increasingly resistant or inaccessible to other forms of advertising.
Examples of undercover marketing
Sony Ericsson used stealth marketing in 2002 when they hired 60 actors in 10 major cities, and had them "accost strangers and ask them: Would you mind taking my picture?" The actor then handed the stranger a brand new picture phone while talking about how cool the new device was. "And thus an act of civility was converted into a branding event." (Taken from Walker, Rob. The Hidden (In Plain Sight) Persuaders. New York Times Magazine; Dec 5, 2004; New York Times pg. 68)
Wikipedia has become a tool for undercover marketing. The creation of WikiScanner, for example, has revealed attempts at manipulating Wikipedia's content by a large number of business, government, and special interest groups.
- Krotoski, Aleks (2006-12-11). "New Sony viral marketing ploy angers consumers". The Guardian (London). Retrieved 2010-05-26.
- "What To Do When Your Company Wikipedia Page Goes Bad".
- "CIA and Vatican edit Wikipedia entries".