It is no surprise that recent poll figures show that marketers and advertisers are seen as used car salesmen and miracle-cure hucksters by jaded consumers. According to the Gallup Organization’s poll from December 2004, only 10 percent of polled consumers rated ad execs’ ethics as “very high” or “high,” just ahead of car salesmen who scored 9 percent.
By comparison, lawyers were next with 18 percent. Only 51 percent of the respondents rated ad professionals’ ethics as “average” and 35 percent rated them as “low” or “very low.” The poll suggests that the perception of ethical conduct has been sliding steadily for ad execs and their ilk. By the way, nurses topped the list with 79 percent of the “very high” vote, followed by grade school teachers (73 percent) and pharmacists (72 percent).
Unless marketers embody the simple notion of authenticity in their marketing strategies and tactics, the Gallup polls will continue to show the populace growing increasingly mistrustful of all things marketing. Disapproval numbers will continue to rise, brand trust will keep eroding and the consumer will become even more calcified. In fact, it is the calcification of the consumer to traditional mass marketing that is making word-of-mouth an integral part of not just guerrilla marketing, but of the entire marketing mix for a brand, product and service. Buzz works, and often the chase for its fruits takes form in less than honest tactics.
BzzAgent’s own research offers clues to the effectiveness of buzz. A case study for Wharton School Publishing – a new venture from the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania — posted on their site described a control test in which BzzAgent spread almost 1,000 of its agents over five urban markets. No other marketing – media, guerrilla, promotional, etc. – was conducted in the areas. Twenty weeks later, the company compared these five areas against five control markets and found that the markets in which the agents operated outperformed the control markets by 66 percent in sales. The company also reported a four-week moving average of sales showing test markets trending up, and control markets going down.
A case study for buzz marketing like this would convince many mainstream marketers to shift budgets into word-of-mouth programs. But it shouldn’t convince them to shift their ethical boundaries as well. These boundaries are blurred when there is no obvious commercial framework to the campaigns, whether it is physical roaching using buzz agents or the campaign is conducted online with planted posts and fake sites and blogs.
When we are watching television, we are all prepared for the advertisements, product placements and celebrity endorsements that come with it. There is context to the commercial messages being directed at us. But when there is no distinction – when random conversation or cool websites are actually marketing pitches – then marketing inauthenticity turns into consumer victimization. This is a key point to consider when devising an experiential marketing program: it should be conducted when and where the consumer chooses or is most receptive to it.
By denying the consumer this choice and by taking advantage of her receptiveness to it through fake sites and deceptive word-of-mouth, marketers run the risk of further alienating consumers from creative marketing.