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IHAVEANIDEA.ORG > articles >  Uncovering The Danger Of Undercover Marketing


Uncovering The Danger Of Undercover Marketing

Posted on July 31, 2004 and read 8,081 times

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You’re strolling down the street when a tourist asks you for a favour. Can you take his picture? Being the Good Samaritan that you are, you kindly oblige. He hands you his hot new cell phone that is not only a phone, but a digital camera as well. The tourist is so excited about his new gadget; he can’t stop raving about how cool it is. It’s hard not to agree that it is pretty cool.

What if you found out that the ‘tourist’ was really an actor hired by Sony Ericsson to hit the streets and interact with as many people as possible? Would you feel cheated? Deceived? Or would you just accept it as another marketing tactic, not all that different from traditional advertising?

According to John Maron, marketing director at Sony Ericcsson and brains behind the undercover campaign known as “fake tourists”, “[The campaign] 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. In a sense, it was for the people to just fit into the area in which they were.”

It’s no secret that traditional advertising is a sales pitch. The goal is to convince consumers to take action – buy this product, trust this brand. Malcolm Gladwell, who touches on undercover marketing in his book The Tipping Point, thinks that the important difference between traditional advertising and undercover marketing lies in the fact that “there’s a set of rules that govern a lot of advertising and we’re aware of the rules. We’re aware that the woman in the advertising for Ivory Soap is prettier than most women in our lives. A line is crossed, I think, when you go outside of those normal boundaries and start to deceive people in ways that they are, where they are totally unwitting to what’s going on.”

There appears to be an unwritten understanding between consumers and advertisers: entertain me, engage me, intrigue me and I will in turn listen to your pitch. We accept the slicker, fancier, more beautiful version of reality represented in advertisements as part of the entertainment value. However, it is difficult to apply the accepted advertising allowances when we don’t even know we’re being targeted. How do we draw the line? How do we know if the line has been crossed?

The concept of deception in advertising is not new. In the 1950s, James Vicary, an advertising expert, introduced the world to subliminal advertising. Testing his new advertising tool in a movie theatre, he flashed the commands “EAT POPCORN” and “DRINK COCA-COLA” so quickly the audience could not consciously see the words. Vicary claimed that sales of both popcorn and Coke jumped, but later admitted in a 1962 interview in Advertising Age that the original study was a fabrication.

Regardless of Vicary’s admission of defeat, and study after study that concludes that subliminal communication has no effect, the concept of subliminal advertising persists. The concern that advertisers could influence consumers unknowingly was strong enough to provoke legislation. Today subliminal advertising is banned by most major countries. The FCC in America outlaws it by simply saying subliminal advertising is designed to deceive. For that reason alone it is forbidden to be used by any radio or television advertiser. Within the Canadian Code of Advertising Standards, it is stated that “No advertisement shall be presented in a format or style which conceals its commercial intent.”

So, how does undercover marketing stand up against the advertising standards on which we rely to ensure boundaries are respected? The idea behind stealth marketing campaigns is to make a pitch within a situation where consumers don’t feel like they are being pitched. According to Maron, the “fake tourists” were not identified as “Sony Ericsson employees because it takes the spontaneity of the conversation away.” The real reason to disguise the identity of the brand representatives is not spontaneity, but trust. What makes undercover marketing, and the third party endorsement it creates, such a strong tool is the trust consumers put in the opinion of a peer. There is an inherent implied lack of ulterior motive in an impromptu conversation where a stranger offers an opinion. What does this ‘tourist’ have to gain by showing me his cool new camera phone? The assumption is that he gains nothing but the opportunity to brag – certainly not an opportunity to increase sales or brand awareness. There is a fine line between “non-evasive, interesting conversations” and concealed commercial intent. It’s a line that is getting harder and harder to maintain as new tactics are developed to breakthrough the advertising clutter and reach consumers.

And as the line becomes more blurred those that serve to be hurt the most are not consumers, but the advertising community. The credibility of advertising as communication tool comes into question when even the unwritten rules that define the relationship between consumers and advertisers can no longer be trusted. In an article in Time magazine, Daniel Eisenberg commented that, “In an age of rising media saturation and sinking corporate credibility, the theory is that marketing is most effective when you don’t know that it’s marketing.” If this theory proves to be true, and stealth marketing is the next big wave in communication techniques, we stand to create an environment where consumers can no longer clearly draw the boundaries between a casual conversation and an advertising pitch.


Krysten Cooper
Freelance Writer






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