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When guerrilla marketing goes bourgeois

As big brands adopt the street-theater stunts once reserved for startups, it may mean the end of the surprise effect that made them work.
/ Source: BusinessWeek Online

Londoners cruising for a parking space one day in 2004 got a surprise when they turned onto Belvedere Road — one spot was taken up by a Volkswagen Polo Twist carved out of ice.

The car, conceived by ad agency DDB London, melted to the ground in about 12 hours, but lives on as a brief case-study in a new book, Guerrilla Advertising. The authors, Gavin Lucas and Michael Dorrian, present the best examples of guerrilla tactics in international campaigns by major brands, nonprofits, and individuals. The book documents how big brands are increasingly seeking spectacular new ways of grabbing consumers' attention, as traditional forms of advertising seem to be losing eyeballs.

The book shows the 16,000 mysterious butterfly stickers that appeared on walls and buildings around Manhattan, a mid-air soccer match, and the woman napping in her bed inside a crowded Hong Kong subway station.

Ephemeral messages
“This work is very transient. It's like a rainbow. You see it, or you blink, and it's gone,” says Lucas of the ads presented in the book. “By using this type of guerrilla ad, companies are trying to engage with people in a way that surprises them. But if people see it again, it doesn't have the same impact.”

“Guerrilla advertising” is a catch-all phrase for nontraditional advertising campaigns that take the form of theatrically staged public scenes or events, often carried out without city permits or advance public hype. The term riffs on “guerrilla marketing,” which was first coined by author Jay Conrad Levinson in 1984 to refer to unconventional, non-big-media-dependent brand-building exercises such as sending out a personalized letter touting a product to consumers, or canvassing with brochures. Such take-it-to-the-street DIY marketing and ad campaigns were once a low-budget strategy for startups and small businesses unable to afford a thirty-second spot.

Trying to engage
But now, for a variety of reasons, even big-name brands are taking the guerrilla approach. It offers a way to engage highly targeted audiences, to develop a streetwise identity, and simply to jar consumers who are so inundated with advertisements — which have crept into video games and even onto egg shells — that they tend to ignore them.

Microsoft, for instance, stuck the butterfly stickers around New York. Adidas orchestrated the gravity-defying soccer game in Tokyo and Osaka. And McDonald's hired the napping model in Hong Kong. Each of these ephemeral "ads" was meant to generate word-of-mouth buzz, and to speak to a very specific market, like hip New Yorkers wary of Microsoft's ultracorporate brand identity, or harried Hong Kong commuters for whom the sight of a sleeping woman might resonate.

Adam Salacuse, chief executive officer of the Boston ad agency ALT TERRAIN (which devised the Microsoft sticker campaign), estimates that 65 percent of his firm's clients request what he calls “engaging” ads — a category that, he says, encompasses guerrilla ads.

Reaching Saturation
Despite the trend, Salacuse says he and his colleagues are starting to “recommend turning away from ‘eye-catching’ or ‘novel’ tactics because they're initially amusing, but sure to fade,” he writes in an e-mail. “Even if unique, more is not better. The focus needs to be on quality of consumer engagement.”

Salacuse says that ALT TERRAIN is pushing more toward “influencer marketing,” getting a brand's message out over time via tastemakers such as hair stylists or nightclub DJs who will promote a product or service in everyday conversation. He sees this as the next wave, now that consumers might already be growing weary or at least suspicious of guerrilla ads, which can seem like desperate publicity stunts.

There's one audience that's paying attention to such stunts, though: none other than the organizers of the Clio Awards — the advertising world's Oscars. For the last three years the Clios have included a “content & contact” category to recognize this new genre.

The 2006 winner of the top Clio in this field was the “Fill the City With Questions” campaign drummed up by Japan's Dentsu agency for an Internet portal called Goo. The poster campaign plastered trivia questions in subway stations around the city, prompting passersby to go register their answer at the Goo Web site. It's an idea that might have been fresh several years ago, but in 2006 seems trite. And now that such tactics are becoming stale, the genre of guerrilla ads isn't, well, so guerrilla any more.

Viral future?

But Lucas thinks that the advent and popularity of video-sharing sites like YouTube or Google Video could offer a new life for future guerrilla ads — or whatever one wants to call them.

“I've yet to see on YouTube anyone documenting a guerrilla ad. But I don't see why it isn't possible,” Lucas observes, suggesting that guerrilla ads can easily live on and find new context as viral marketing fodder, or video clips promoting a brand, sent from consumer to consumer.

“The Adidas game of high-wire soccer would've been a YouTube smash,” Lucas says. “Even if guerrilla ads piss people off, they love to debate in the blogosphere and that could get a brand attention.”