There’s No Alternative to Alternative Marketing

The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.

That infamous line was uttered by Kevin Spacey’s character, Verbal Kint, near the end of the 1995 crime drama, “The Usual Suspects.” Kint is alluding to his own trick — convincing investigators he’s nothing more than a crippled pawn when in fact, he’s the criminal mastermind they seek.

The expression is beginning to apply to marketing as well.

You may have noticed a rather strange trend in corporate promotion over the past few months. It started in January when a British newspaper reported Volkswagen paid U.K. creative team Lee and Dan to create a professional-quality car commercial that was making the rounds online. The ad, which Lee and Dan claimed “wasn’t intended for public consumption,” portrays a suicide bomber attempting to blow up a café by detonating a bomb from inside his VW Polo. But the car contains the explosion, prompting the tag line, “Polo. Small but tough.”

Volkswagen vehemently denied having anything to do with the clever but controversial ad (to the point where it’s now suing the creators). Yet many believe the company was secretly involved. The debate has been a regular feature on marketing blogs since the ad’s release and is responsible for a widespread viral marketing campaign.

T-Mobile was recently propelled into the spotlight by an equally controversial incident. In late February, socialite Paris Hilton publicly announced her T-Mobile Sidekick had been hacked, and her famous friends’ contact information was posted on the Web. Although one might assume security concerns would spell doom for the wireless carrier, the incident actually boosted Sidekick sales. This prompted a few fellow marketers to jokingly question whether the hack was, in fact, an accident.

VW and T-Mobile may not be behind the Internet scandals that brought them so much press, but these incidents got me thinking: is alternative marketing poised to become the principal arrow in a media planner’s quiver?

Covert and guerrilla marketing tactics are nothing new. Whether hiring soda promoters to seek out kids on the street or persuading bloggers to tout a product’s benefits (a dicey tactic many oppose), marketers have tried almost every unconventional approach they can come up with to generate buzz and boost sales. Far too often, however, traditional mentalities and corporate egos prevent them from pushing the envelope far enough. Campaigns that left a mark belong instead to marketers who are more intent on getting results than glory.

Consider the indie film “The Blair Witch Project.” Its success was largely based on a Web site some say wasn’t meant for the masses. The site spawned rumors the fictional story was fact, launched fan sites, and created mailing lists and a sizeable fan base — all before the movie was released.

It’s since been suggested the film’s creators and their friends were behind what wasn’t so much a stroke of luck as an orchestrated promotional campaign.

Perhaps the reason why alternative marketing methods are increasingly common is they’re just what our cluttered and often predictable medium needs. Just as product placement is most effective when the product’s presence feels organic, the disassociation of a company with a great campaign is much more likely to pique consumer interest. Increasingly, orthodox concepts such as teaser campaigns demonstrate how putting a little distance between corporate message and campaign can produce results.

That said, there’s a thin line between marketing and deception that media planners and advertisers must respect. Alternative marketing isn’t always ethical. “Leak” an ad once in a while to create some healthy buzz, by all means. But if you’re thinking of impersonating consumers and posting positive product reviews on blogs and forums across the Web, think again.

If you’re considering alternative approaches, do the research. Odds are, someone has already experimented and can give you a glimpse into potential consumer reaction. recently alleged “marketing ambassadors” may have been hired to improve singer Ashlee Simpson’s image after she was booed at the Orange Bowl. To be fair, the culprit may simply have been an obsessed fan. But review readers’ responses to the implication, and you’ll see this approach to promotion isn’t likely to be embraced.

As marketers continue to search for ways to break the traditional campaign mold, we’ll see many more intentional alternative marketing campaigns, online and off-. It won’t be long before what defines a marketing legend is the ability to convince the world marketing doesn’t even exist.

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