24 April 2008

Beware Of Geeks Bearing Grifts: The Pros and Con Artists of Digital Marketing

by Freddy Tran Nager, Founder of Atomic Tango LLC…

“You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you can not fool all of the people all of the time.” — Abraham Lincoln

“There’s an old saying in Tennessee — I know it’s in Texas, probably in Tennessee — that says, fool me once, shame on — shame on you. Fool me — you can’t get fooled again.” — George W. Bush

“Beware of geeks bearing grifts.” — Me

19th Century showman Phineas Taylor Barnum was one deceptive bastard. His reputation for duplicity was so potent, he’s erroneously credited with the saying “a sucker is born every minute.” One of his greatest stunts was too easy: to move crowds quickly through his infamous museum, he posted signs exclaiming “This way to the egress.” Excited patrons who didn’t know the meaning of “egress” soon found themselves standing outside — the 19th Century version of an “exit strategy.”

(Interesting link: Barnum’s museum mysteriously burned down, but has been virtually rebuilt by the City University of New York. Check out the Lost Museum here — just watch out for the egress.)

Today, Barnum would make a killing in social media, where potential suckers are more accessible than ever. That’s why every square inch of the Internet has been tagged with spam. I reflexively delete the spam I get, but someone out there — in fact, a lot of someones out there are responding to those ludicrous offers, otherwise those Nigerian millionaires would stop asking for help.

One Slimy Step Up

Just up the food chain from the criminal element are the simply deceptive. I blogged about one such maestro of misdirection in my post, Are You For Real, Monica Rockle? The perpetrator was a guy posing as a pretty college coed, “Monica Rockle,” who invited people to a Facebook Group disguised as a “Psychology Marketing Project.” Turns out he was really promoting his T-shirt shop on Café Press. This scheme eventually hooked over 700,000 people in a month — more than the total paid circulation of Wired magazine. PT Barnum would have been proud.

Too bad it’s a complete waste.

Maybe “Monica” sold some shirts, but since this campaign is based on fraud, the marketer can’t build upon it. He can’t generate loyalty from people who’ve been deceived. You can sense their annoyance and even anger in their comments on my blog or on the anti-Monica group (“Monica Rockle is a Bald-Faced Liar”). So while this modern-day Barnum far surpassed his short-term objectives — generating traffic and memberships -—he’s got zero long-term prospects. His T-shirt store has no brand equity, perhaps even negative equity, since no one will trust anything he says or does again.

From a marketing tactics perspective, here’s what else he did wrong:

  1. He killed the discussion: Many people join Facebook simply to interact with other members. They don’t even care about the topic as long as it’s a “hot scene” (the Facebook version of clubbing). Consequently, the bulletin board and comment wall of this “Psychology Marketing Project” buzzed with hundreds of posts that had nothing to do with psychology, marketing, or even T-shirts. Many of the posts consisted of feverish rants by religious zealots, homophobes and other extremists, happy to have free access to 700,000 people. Of course, all these people attracted other spammers, like sharks drawn to chum, so you had the phenomenon of spammers spamming a spam site — meta-spam? Then some spoilsports, i.e., moi, started posting the truth about “Monica Rockle.” Our marketer overreacted by taking down all of the Group’s discussion opportunities. (How un-Web 2.0 of him.) The result? The Group’s growth slowed to a trickle.
  2. He faked the girl: It would not have cost much to hire an aspiring model or a real college student to be Monica and interact with her fans. (Think lonelygirl15.) That way he could have built relationships with consumers — or even built a brand around her. Instead, our Facebook marketer used a free stock photo (how cheap can you get?), and when that was exposed, he hid her face entirely and changed the spelling of her name to “Monic Rokel.”
  3. He didn’t capitalize on what was working: Monica Rockle became such a Facebook phenomenon that one of those putrid domain squatters snatched up all the web addresses containing “Monica Rockle.” But instead of selling Monica merchandise, her creator sold political T-shirts. It was a complete disconnect.

Borrowed Interest and the Great Disconnect

Basing an ad on a completely unrelated attention-getter (like a pretty girl, cute animal, celebrity, or Hollywood movie tie-in) is called “borrowed interest.” The problem is that it creates a complete disconnect in the minds of consumers, who say, what the hell does this have to do with the product? Does Tiger Woods really drive a Buick? Do talking forest animals make Frontier Airlines worth flying?

The most common form of borrowed interest is the gratuitous use of sex to sell something unrelated, like a car battery. (I know some of you use car batteries for amorous purposes, but I’m talking to normal people here, OK?) GoDaddy.com attained worldwide notoriety with their Super Bowl ad featuring a porn star in a tight top, which had nothing to do with their product: web hosting services. They avoided a complete disconnect by featuring the racy Super Bowl ad and its sequels on their site, but what now? One of the many problems with “borrowed interest” is that its lack of genuine connection to a business makes it difficult to build a sustainable campaign. The company constantly has to shift gears to maintain consumer interest.

Of course, that keeps us ad agencies in business…

Cyberian Outpost

A classic example of borrowed interest that created a massive disconnect is Cyberian Outpost, an electronics ecommerce site back in Web 1.0. Their commercials, developed by agency Cliff Freeman in 1998, were edgy and (for some viewers) hilarious. I’ve found some examples still living online (pardon the low quality — these were obviously transferred from old school videotape).

The first is the original, featuring gerbils:

Here’s my favorite, featuring a high school marching band:

And then there’s the one with babies that seems to disturb a lot of viewers:

These ads targeted young American males, who dominated Web surfing at that time, and who were also imitating Beavis & Butthead, reciting scenes from Monty Python, and buying tickets to movies spit up by the Farrelly Brothers.

I also explain that the target of the ads wasn’t just consumers, but Cyberian Outpost’s current and potential employees. Again, mostly young males. At the height of the first dot-com boom, heavily-funded companies competed aggressively for techies, forking out big bucks for programmers who had the luxury of hopping from one start-up to another. These alpha-geeks based their employment decisions not only on money, but on the “coolness” of a particular start-up. These ads might have persuaded a few to join — or, if they were already employed at Outpost, to stay.

Another factor was that Cyberian Outpost was cash rich but awareness poor. They had raised $70 million through their IPO and needed to reassure their shareholders that they were serious about becoming a major player. They were up against the likes of Circuit City and Best Buy, and while they couldn’t outspend those electronics giants, they could try to out-funny them.

Regardless of whether you personally like these ads, they did create a buzz and are still actively watched on YouTube a decade later. (Wow, does time fly…) But at the end of the day, these weren’t good ads. The reason? You got it: total disconnect.

Viewers who responded to the ads by typing in Outpost.com came across a bland electronics website, with millions of pixels of gadgetry, but not a touch of humor in sight. Maybe some of the geeks who responded were excited by the tech spread and not only bought something but also applied for a job. But for most consumers, the payoff was complete boredom and disappointment. The consumers felt conned, as if the ghost of PT Barnum had just led them through the wrong door.

To complete this story, Cyberian Outpost’s stock once hit a high of $60 per share. After the dotcom bubble burst, the company was sold for $0.25 per share (that’s right, twenty-five cents) to Fry’s, which maintained Outpost.com as a bland electronics website with almost zero awareness, before Fry’s, too, gave up the ghost.

AIDA, Integration and Continuity

A trite marketing framework states that an ad should create the following:

  1. Awareness: Consumers know about your product or company.
  2. Interest: Consumers want to find out more.
  3. Desire: Consumers want to own the product.
  4. Action: Consumers actually make the purchase.

The acronym, AIDA, is now widely taught, even in pure design schools. But obviously, not every advertiser pays much allegiance to it. While the Monica Rockle and Outpost experiments certainly created awareness and interest, very little desire was generated, and not much action beyond checking out the sites.

However, I don’t agree that every ad needs to generate desire or action. Hollywood has successfully mastered the teaser campaign that creates massive interest long before a movie is in the theaters — consider the recent buzz around the movie “Forgetting Sarah Marshall.” That campaign featured somewhat cryptic posters and billboards with such lines as “I’m so over you Sarah Marshall” and “You suck Sarah Marshall,” and was the topic of newspaper articles and consumer conversations.

I began my marketing career in Hollywood, so I created a different framework, and in typical pretentious self-indulgent marketer fashion, I made sure that all of my criteria started with the same letter:

  1. Brand: Does the ad reinforce or enhance the company’s (or product’s) brand?
  2. Buzz: Does the ad inspire conversation about the ad or the product?
  3. Behavior: Does the ad lead to any particular action, even if it’s simply to check out the website?

Using Freddy’s 3B’s standard, the Sarah Marshall campaign was a complete success. People talked about the campaign and wound up buying tickets to the movie, which opened a strong #2 at the box office. And the ads were edgy and original, which is how the critics are also describing the movie.

On the flip side, the Monica Rockle and Outpost promotions were a bust. They certainly created a buzz. They also led to some desired behavior: joining Monica’s group and checking out Outpost.com (respectively). But neither reinforced or enhanced their brands. As mentioned, the T-shirt shop had nothing to do with a pretty college coed, and the Cyberian Outpost site had nothing to do with flying gerbils or ravenous wolves. The promotions appear to be advertising some completely different ventures than the main intended business.

The Marketing 101 rules here:

1. It’s critical that all of a company’s marketing materials have brand continuity. Do the promotions display the same values and personality as the overall company? Is there similarity in tone and appearance? Note: the promotions need not be identical — not every Nike ad looks the same, but there’s a definite Nike vibe and attitude that permeates all their ads, from their TV commercials to their website.

2. There should also be well thought-out integration, which means that certain elements need to be carried over from one medium to another.
Monica should have been a model in the T-shirts store, with pictures of her wearing the T-shirts on her college campus. The latest Outpost ads should have appeared on their website with perhaps a video game that involved shooting gerbils through a giant letter O in hopes of winning an Outpost.com shopping spree.

And no one has to be fooled along the way.

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Freddy is the Founder & Creative Strategist of Atomic Tango. He also teaches graduate-level marketing communication courses at the University of Southern California (go Trojans!), shoots pool somewhat adequately, and herds cats. Freddy received his BA from Harvard and his MBA from USC.

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16 years ago

Wow! I totally remember the marching band commercial…that was 10 years ago?! Yikes!
Very insightful article…you make some really great points.

16 years ago

Funny comment about Frontier Airlines. Obviously, by the recent Chapter 11 filing, those animals aren’t helping much. Personally, I always hated that campaign.

And, though I am not sure I remember the Outpost.com commercials, I did giggle at the tattooing the kids one. Don’t tell my pre-school teaching boyfriend, though.

As for the disconnect factor, great explanation. Hope Mr. Monica is listening.

16 years ago

I’d have to say…having never caught the Outpost ads before they certainly made me laugh…and I have bought stuff from Outpost.com…but then the ads weren’t what got me to buy…one thing that sucks about outpost is they are not integrated with the frys stores like they should be…a poor decision that led me to go into the store much more often…

16 years ago

I realize this isn’t the point of the post, but the Dubya quote is my fav ever – every time I see it or hear it, I can visualize the video. Also – there’s a Leann Rimes song that has the actual quote in it, so every time the song is on the radio, it brings it up too.