Mystery Billboards Garner Buzz

It's tough to get people to notice billboards in New York and Los Angeles, but giant signs of what looks like a scorned woman have attracted attention.

"Hi Steven, Do I have your attention now?" the sign reads, and then goes on to call Steven immoral and unfaithful. The open letter ends with a "P.S. I paid for this from our joint bank account."

Los Angelinos are captivated.

"There's no insinuation that it has to do with any brand, but I wouldn't be surprised if that's not for real. I mean, we're in L.A.," one woman said, looking back at the billboard over her shoulder.

Her friend agreed. "This has got to be a publicity stunt, it's just not 100 percent believable as a personal ad."

On Ryan Seacrest's radio show on 102.7 KIIS FM Los Angeles, people called in to discuss the billboards.

One skeptical caller to Seacrest's show said she didn't believe the message was truly part of a lover's quarrel. She said she'd seen one of the billboards in another location. "I saw one yesterday over on Englewood and Washington," she said.

"Let's then deduce that there was no individual woman who was cheated on here, that this is obviously an ad campaign," Seacrest replied. "That ad agency is having the greatest day of their life."

This billboard is part of a mystery ad campaign for a new cable TV show. It's part of a larger trend of ads that don't look like ads at all. Another example of the trend is the advertising campaign run by Secret deodorant, which looks as if people are posting their deepest secrets in Times Square.

"The key word -- and this is what every advertiser is looking for -- buzz," said Jerry Della Femina, chairman and CEO of Della Femina, Rothschild, Jeary Partners advertising agency in New York. "They want buzz."

This buzz has a more technical name: viral advertising, so dubbed because the ads spread from one person to another by people talking about them and, in the case of online ads, e-mailing them to friends.

Ad agencies large and small have creative teams dedicated to the viral concept, because these ads are cheaper to produce and because more young consumers are likely to pay attention. Ground zero of viral advertising is the video sharing Web site YouTube.com, which has more daily viewers than MTV.

"It's so deliciously sneaky," Della Femina said. "Most people say advertising doesn't affect me. Well, it does. It does and it works."

But the heavy impact of viral marketing carries a risk. A video clip of a Middle East terrorist blowing himself up in a Volkswagen drew millions of online hits. Even though Volkswagen had nothing to do with the clip, the company apologized after a storm of bad publicity.

Simply commenting on these ads in the media boosts their advertising power.

"The fact that you're now talking about viral advertising means that the virtual advertisers have won," Della Femina said.

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