May 1999
s m u g
smoking jacket
by Gregory Alkaitis-Carafelli

Leftovers of the Undiscovered Country:
How to make Advertising work for You

In the beginning was the billboard, and in the future some predict advertising will penetrate even dreams. But here in the present we must be content with the happy medium: mere product placement, a viral but not yet terminal infection. As early as 1996 the phrase "viral marketing" appeared in the lexicons of Madison Avenue, and the quest was begun via this insidious mechanism to subvert the mainstream, promote the brand, and sell the prevailing attitude of the times -- via whatever product a firm was under contract to promote -- all with a rapacious eye towards profit.

Early digital marketing pioneers Hotmail and ICQ quickly learned the viral value of word-of-mouth, especially when the mouths had no say in their complicity. Steve Jurvetson and Tim Draper in Business 2.0 note that "Hotmail grew a subscriber base more rapidly than any company in the history of the world," using a technique whereby "every outbound message" sent by the Hotmail service "conveyed an advertisement and a subtle implied endorsement by the sender." Bob Metcalfe, reflecting in a recent InfoWorld column on a conversation with ICQ co-founder Joseph Vardi, just now realizes that "not only is the ICQ service useful and fun, so you're doing your buddies a favor by telling them about it, but the ICQ service is more valuable to members if their buddies are also members. This is contagion at its best."

But the marketing technique that online is just being fully realized, traditional media has been using to best advantage for years. Sneaking a brand, virus like, into every possible crevasse and chasm is nothing new, especially in Hollywood; it is no surprise that Apple Computer employs a full time staffer to handle nothing but product placement coordination; and extravagant product-movie marriages like the recent Levi-Mod Squad match-up are commonplace, almost tedious. (Not for nothing did Mary Elizabeth Williams remark that the movie "often looks like little more than a big-budget jeans ad.") Elsewhere, McDonald's, in a shrill display of community service, has replaced basketball backboards on North Philadelphia neighborhood courts with backboards containing the McDonald's logo.

As is clear, much creative marketing work has already been done -- you may be concerned there's nothing "new" left for your company, no pioneering approach to set you apart from your competition. Yet! All is not lost -- there are still avenues unexplored and marketing opportunities unrealized in these oh so cynical times. A quick brainstorm reveals these gems for secretly spreading your product's holy word, offered free of charge or warranty:

Purchase time on 911 calls. Clinical research has shown the heightened adrenaline and serotonin levels humans experience during a crisis enhances memory -- making that call to 911 the perfect time to plug your product! Spots should be limited to about twenty seconds for maximum effectiveness, as they will be played before the audience member is connected with the operator, and should contain an audio hook (or "jingle") to help reinforce brand awareness and tie in with your other media campaigns. Remember people who call 911 also watch television and read magazines!

As a bonus, be sure to contractually guarantee with the local call center that your ads won't be edited out of any 911 call recordings that are aired by the press -- you can't afford to loose this valuable potentially national brand exposure!

Purchase space on chair seats (restaurants, etc.). This marginalized but vast real-estate is often overlooked by slow-thinking media buyers focused on the negative short term. "People will be sitting on our message." But don't forget they'll first be seeing and absorbing your message! People get up and sit down countless times per day -- this is an inexpensive road to brand impression riches you can't afford to let pass by.

In a similar vein, why aren't you advertising your product on the back of toilet stall doors and on urinal walls? The audience is captive and the exposure total. (Print creative should be covered with a clear plastic laminate to mitigate possible environmental damage that could dilute your brand and send unfortunate associative messages.)

Purchase unused space on court summons, pleading papers, bench and arrest warrants, subpoenas, motions, referrals, parking tickets and other legal documents. Just think: distribution is already taken care of, and in most cases by a dedicated workforce legally empowered and required to get your message into consumer hands. Your tax dollars at work! It's a no-brainer!

These are merely talking points to get your team started: remember to always consult with legal counsel licensed to practice in the jurisdiction you're planning on targeting before beginning an "edgy" media campaign such as those outlined above. While technological limitations still hamper extreme advertising, you should always be thinking outside the box. After all, your competitors most certainly are.



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