The next time an overly friendly blond sidles up in a crowded bar and asks you to order her a brand-name martini, or a cheery tourist couple wonder whether you can take their picture with their sleek new camera-in-a-cell phone, you might want to think twice. There's a decent chance that these strangers are pitchmen in disguise, paid to oh-so-subtly pique your interest in their product. Their game, known as "stealth marketing," is one of several unorthodox ploys that Madison Avenue is using to get through to jaded consumers.
Covert product placement has been around for years, with movie and TV producers accepting cash for the casual positioning of a particular brand of soda or make of sports car in the background of a scene. But now the concept has leaped off the screen into other areas of life, often catching consumers unaware. Celebrities such as Lauren Bacall and Kathleen Turner appear on talk shows and praise prescription drugs without disclosing that they have been paid by the drugmakers. Marketers give expensive sneakers, colognes or even cars to young trendsetters on college campuses, at the fringes of show biz or at hot nightclubs with the understanding that they will use and talk up the products. Producers of soap operas and sitcoms and even best-selling author Fay Weldon take money to build plots around a certain brand of makeup or jewelry. 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.
Such stealthy efforts are but one phase of a larger growth industry of alternative and guerrilla marketing that ranges from handing out free samples to sponsoring concerts and other events. "We need to take our brand to them and not wait for them to come to us," says Hilary Dart, president of Calvin Klein Cosmetics. Its estimated $45 million campaign to launch the men's fragrance Crave this fall will include street sampling, product seeding among opinion leaders and other guerrilla tactics (even building sand sculptures of the Crave logo on beaches on both coasts) before any ads are unveiled.
There are no reliable estimates of spending on alternative marketing, in part because agencies and clients rarely admit to using stealth methods. Certainly, it represents a small fraction of the estimated $236 billion that will be spent this year on traditional print, broadcast, radio and online advertising in the U.S. But industry experts say that outlays for alternative campaigns are growing rapidly--and that Madison Avenue has little choice but to seek new ways to push products. After tightening their belts during the recession, clients are increasingly wondering what exactly their hefty ad budgets are getting them and "demanding greater accountability," as Steve Moynihan, managing director of ArnoldMPG, puts it. "Advertising is only one part of the communications mix and not the whole arsenal," says Seth Matlins, who runs marketing for Hollywood talent agency Creative Artists Agency, which helped land Coke a high-profile role on Fox Broadcasting's summer talent-contest hit, American Idol. (Notice that instead of the standard green room for guests waiting backstage, there's the Coca-Cola Red Room with curvy red couches that look suspiciously like the Real Thing's logo.)