Stealth Marketing Effective, Some Say Deceiving

Aug. 22, 2002 -- Nowhere in America is the advertising pitch more intense than in New York City's Times Square. Visitors are surrounded by electronic advertising — animated billboards on giant video screens hawking everything from the latest movies to the hottest music to the newest fashions.

Sony-Ericsson is selling cellular telephones here with a large billboard and with herds of yellow cabs with rooftop signs. And they are selling the gadgets with Tom and Heather.

Tom Sellwood, 24, is a handsome, clean-cut British actor who arrives with a backpack and his Sony-Ericsson cellular telephone. It's one of the new ones with a digital camera attachment, which takes pictures and stores them.

Sellwood loves acting and the theater but he hates being called a salesman. Heather Lane, a pretty 19-year-old singer and actress who works as his partner agrees. "I wouldn't call it [being] a salesperson," she says. "We're not pushing anything on anybody."

And then the pitch begins. Sellwood asks a Times Square passersby a favor: "Would you take a picture of me and my girlfriend?" Almost everyone does. On the new Sony-Ericsson cellular phone with the digital camera attachment.

"Don't know how?" Sellwood asks, demonstrating how it works. "It's easy. Look. Just push this button. This is so sweet. I just got it." The recipients of the pitch become intrigued with the latest gadget in communications.

Told later that Sellwood and Lane are actors and not actually tourists, some of the subjects are amused with the pitch.

Word-of-Mouth Proves to Be Effective

"It's a little deceiving. But I guess it's a good way to get your point across in a populated area like this," says Ryan Hill, from Windsor, Ontario.

John Maron, Sony-Ericsson's director of marketing, couldn't agree more.

"It's not just a typical phone that makes a phone call anymore," he says. "It does a whole lot more. And how do you explain that in a magazine ad?"

The concept is called "viral marketing," or spreading the word about a product by word of mouth, like a virus. More and more companies are using viral marketing to try to get to hard to reach customers. And for the most part they say it works.

"The feedback so far has been overwhelmingly positive," Maron says.

But Maron hasn't been listening to Gary Ruskin, who is the executive director of Commercial Alert, an advertising monitoring agency created by consumer advocate Ralph Nader. "First, it's deceptive," Rushkin says. "People think these are tourists but really they are corporate shills. Second, it's intrusive. It's like telemarketing in your face."

Ruskin is concerned that this form of marketing will become the norm as companies find it harder and harder to reach their markets.

Is It Intrusive, Ethical?

"It's absolutely unethical to deceive people like this," he says. "In addition, it's taking advantage of the kindness of strangers and that's pretty low."

The pitch does not just happen on street corners. In the evening, it migrates to the nightclubs.

Guastavino's, an upscale club on Manhattan's East Side, was where Sarah Baker, 23, and Lisa Dery, 28, are having a drink at the bar and starting conversations about Sony-Ericsson cellular phones. In just a minute, they are surrounded by men who are curious. And then the phones come out.

Is this any way to sell a product?

Sony-Ericsson's Maron says his actors will "identify themselves if actually asked if they work for the company."

Back at Times Square, a young man from Connecticut named John Demaio was surprised when he learned the good-looking couple with the fancy phone were actors.

"I feel violated," he says. "I mean I had a connection between the two people and then to find out that they're salesmen."

For the most part, people interviewed laughed and thought the viral marketing approach was an innovative way to sell a product. Sony-Ericsson reports positive feedback since the campaign started.

But the next time some nice couple wants you to take their picture, remember: The person with the camera may be a lot less than candid.