Delivering Non-Ad Ads

Halloween: October 31, celebrated in the United States, Canada, and the British Isles by children going door to door while wearing costumes and begging treats and playing pranks.

Take a look at the current state of the Internet, and you’d swear it’s eternally Halloween: unsolicited email disguised as messages from friends, adware disguised as shareware, bewildering videos that turn out to be senseless pranks. The more illicit marketers among us increasingly remind me of the inappropriately costumed, inebriated fools who are sure to crash your Halloween party and cause a scene.

The peculiar tactics of masking an ad’s true identity and luring consumers into a dialogue with a brand are no longer limited to illegitimate marketers, however. Increasingly, some of the industry’s most prominent players are using everything — blogs, online games, interactive applications — to attract consumer attention in an unorthodox fashion.

A blog earlier this year featured the seemingly genuine musings of a couple who found a French fry that resembled Abraham Lincoln. The blog was developed by McDonald’s, in association with its 2005 “Lincoln Fry” Super Bowl ad campaign.

Likewise, rental car company Budget just launched a blog and associated reality game called “Up Your Budget.” Consumers can win up to $160,000 by finding clues hidden in 16 U.S. cities and on the blog itself. If you can believe it, the effort underscores the company’s low prices without ever emphasizing Budget’s behind it.

Last year, Burger King pioneered the semi-masked interactive application with its Subservient Chicken site. It followed up with the Angus Diet and the Sith Sense, both of which generated considerable buzz. Microsoft Game Studios, meanwhile, led the charge where alternate reality games were concerned. Remember “The War of The Worlds”-inspired I Love Bees campaign everyone talked about in 2004? We soon found out it was crafted to foster excitement for Halo 2, a new Xbox video game.

Not surprisingly, the circumstances that fueled growth in viral marketing and online product placements are also responsible for this new trend. Consumers simply don’t pay enough attention to traditional ads anymore. Marketers have known for years Internet users are fed up with intrusive ads, but they seem to think this includes obvious ads. Their solution? Deliver ads that don’t appear to be ads at all.

To do this, you must first create unique content that will entice the target audience. Ideally, this closely relates to your product or service in some way. The next step is promotion. Some advertisers support their disguised ads with media buys on the same sites they would normally patronize. Others deploy press releases to the media and rely on ensuing “word of mouse” to generate buzz.

One particularly popular method of boosting interest is refraining from revealing the brains behind the campaign. Strange as it may sound, concealing the identity of your brand behind a perfectly executed content piece can actually result in even more interest.

From a cost perspective, developing such promotions isn’t always advantageous; you could spend a fraction of what you would on a traditional media buy and associated creative or triple your costs, depending on the initiative’s nature. These non-ads can, however, deliver results far greater than anything you could get from a standard banner campaign. Attracting several million visitors to your microsite in a matter of days isn’t uncommon, nor is receiving press coverage that draws countless additional consumers online.

This certainly isn’t a risk-free approach to online advertising, but it seems to be the direction we’re heading in. The more campaigns of this nature we see online, the harder the rest of us must work to compete for eyeballs. Whether these tricks remain marketing treats in the long run is yet to be seen.

I can’t wait for my next chance to figure out who’s behind the mask.

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