February 9th, 2005

Getting Buzz Marketers to Fess Up

By Suzanne Vrancia
Wall Street Journal

EVER WONDER if that guy striking up a conversation is really an actor hired to
shill for a product? One trade group is hoping you’ll never have to.
The Word of Mouth Marketing Association, a year-old Chicago trade group, is
expected to announce today a new set of rules and guidelines for word-of-mouth
advertising, one of the fastest-growing advertising practices.

The use of the marketing maneuver, also called buzz marketing or viral marketing,
has soared in the past two years. Big advertisers such as Procter & Gamble
and Microsoft have embraced the practice at a time when many traditional advertising
venues are rising in cost while declining in impact.

While the practice includes a variety of techniques—from building Web communities
so customers can chat about their product experiences to handing out product
samples—a number of the methods that fall under the word-of-mouth umbrella,
such as hiring actors to talk up a product in public places, have given the
business a black eye.

"Some of these practices are deceptive because people think they are talking
to a real person and they are talking to a shill," says Gary Ruskin, executive
director of Commercial Alert, a Portland, Ore., watchdog group. "It’s about
the commercializing of human relationships."

In 2002, the U.S. arm of Sony Ericsson Mobile Communications faced wide criticism
over a word-of-mouth effort for a camera phone. The company, a venture of Japan’s
Sony and Sweden’s Telefon AB L.M. Ericsson, hired 60 actors to haunt tourist
attractions and act like tourists. Their task: ask unsuspecting passersby to
take their pictures with the Sony Ericsson devices. The agency behind the effort,
Omnicom Group’s Fathom Communications, told the actors to identify themselves
only when asked directly.

"That campaign is shilling, and it violates the ‘honesty of identity’
rule," says Andy Sernovitz, chief executive officer of the Word of Mouth
Marketing Association, whose 40 members include marketing firms and advertisers.

Under the association’s new rules, marketers must make sure that people talking
up products or services disclose whom they are working for. They also must use
real consumers, not actors, who discuss what they really believe about a product.

But getting every company to buy into self-regulation might not be easy. "I
can’t begin to image how one can regulate an industry that thrives on its covert
nature," says Margaret Kessler, project coordinator at TMR Multimedia,
a small marketing firm in Hollywood, Fla. Ms. Kessler routinely hires "ad
spies" to talk up local products. Recently, she hired several actors to
stand in the long line at the local courthouse and strike up conversations about
a sale going on at a nearby furniture store. Last year, a major snack-food company
hired TMR to conduct a pilot project for a healthy snack, which included having
ad spies hang around clinics while munching on the new product.

Larger concerns, too, are skeptical of the new guidelines. "The whole
idea of marketing is to not make it look like marketing," says Jon Bond,
co-founder of Kirshenbaum Bond & Partners. In the mid-1990s, the agency
created an effort for Hennessy, a cognac brand now owned by LVMH Moet Hennessy
Louis Vuitton, that involved hiring 150 actors to drink at trendy bars and chat
with patrons about the pricey product.

Some buzz marketers already shun actors. Edelman USA, which opened a word-of-mouth
division six months ago, recently did work for the launch of Halo 2, Microsoft’s
popular videogame. Instead of hiring actors, it gave some gamers—deemed to
be influencers—tidbits about the alien-hunt game before its release so they
could talk about the product with other avid gamers, who are inclined to be
heavy users of chat rooms and videogame message boards.

Procter & Gamble says it never hires actors to promote products. Instead,
the company has identified 250,000 teens whom it occasionally sends new products
and information. Those teens are free to talk about the samples with friends
and family. The Cincinnati company says it doesn’t pay the teens. "They
are free to form their own opinions," says Steve Knox, CEO of P&G’s
Tremor word-of-mouth marketing agency. "It’s critical that marketers in
the word-of-mouth space have ethics. The consumer must decide what he or she
will say in the marketplace."

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