Thursday, December 15, 2011

Mighty Mouse 1, Mouse Trap 0 -- When Does Guerrilla Marketing Go "Over the Line?"

"I thought your mouse commercial was horrifying. I know it went 'viral' and you certainly got your 15 minutes of fame. Shame on you. I actually gasped. It made me sick." - An indignant "Linda," reacting to a guerrilla marketing video that's racked up more than one million views on the Internet.

** When I'm asked, "What's Guerrilla Marketing and PR?," I give myriad answers. It can be considered "outrageous" by one company that has been very conservative with its marketing outreach efforts -- or considered "tame and tepid" by another company already comfortable enough to go beyond the stock tools of the trade, using unconventional methods to stir up the pot or to court controversy with maniacal zeal.

** But the definition of guerrilla marketing is poorly understood. It's a moving target that's evanescent, wispy and subject to constant change. It doesn't take long for something fresh and clever -- to suddenly become "so yesterday" absent the right touch. What's cute and funny the first few times can become tiresome and annoying after repeated viewings.

** Guerrilla marketing is marketing that doesn't follow traditional rules or platforms to get attention, sometimes bypassing research and other tools -- explicitly going after the jugular. It can be something as simple as changing the spin on an event so that it feels like "real news" -- to employing stunt-based methods fraught with great risk.

** The irony is that in most cases, what's being pitched in an offbeat way -- is already part of the mainstream, e.g., beer, fast food, cars, financial services, new homes, etc. Almost everything sold on the market today, regardless of how it's marketed, is mundane. Everything is nauseatingly "revolutionary," "state-of-the-art," "cutting-edge" or "ground-breaking" -- when in fact -- very few things meet such lofty criteria. When I hear such buzz words, I groan and think to myself, "Another opportunity down the drain, buried by string of tired clichés."

** Guerrilla marketing acknowledges what you already know -- that your friends and neighbors -- are already being hammered with too much information. It's like those amusing commercials for Bing, Microsoft's search engine. Standing head and shoulders above an ocean of information competing for your attention sometimes requires drastic action. You must choose which platforms will best suit your products or services -- beyond traditional print and broadcast media. And your choices have become more difficult -- in light of recent studies which show that more than 40 percent of people under 50 -- are now getting their daily content from wireless devices.

** It gets worse. Let's suppose your "iconoclastic" marketing or PR campaign DOES get off the ground and even better, it DOES gets noticed. How will it compel people to reach deep into their pockets to buy your product or services? Nobody, even the so-called "experts" -- can give you much more than an "educated guess" -- because the rules of guerrilla marketing keep changing. What's also worrisome is another study which suggests that even if you're already hip with social media -- and have a dominant presence on Twitter or Facebook -- this doesn't mean your fans are more significantly inclined to buy from you.

** With the stakes so high -- guerrilla marketing and PR have increasingly crept into the minds of marketing chiefs who as recently as five years ago -- swore they'd NEVER let anything in the door that diverts from "tried and true" methods that have worked for years. I'm running into fewer marketing chiefs resistant to guerrilla marketing and PR -- even while they themselves continue to have trouble convincing their OWN bosses of its merits.

** Even before You Tube or Facebook or Twitter, I've used a number of guerrilla PR tactics during the past 10 years on behalf of willing clients, such as purposely putting a negative spin on something that will still generate positive coverage. But my methods still pale in comparison to some of the more outrageous stunts that have back-fired on others. If it works, you're a hero. If it doesn't, you're in the unemployment line.

** So what type of guerrilla marketing is considered "over the line?"

** Well, you're NOT "over the line" if your product or service is truly great enough for you to stand confidently behind it -- and your target audience thinks your campaign is clever. If scores of young customers are buying your stuff as a result of your tactics -- whether it's Axe deodorant, Bud Light, Carl's Jr. hamburgers or new video games -- it doesn't matter if others are on the sidelines wringing their hands about it.

** For example, I've never liked the "against-the-grain," snarky, sexist and messy looking ads put out by Carl's Jr. But I went into a Carl's Jr. for the first time recently and tried its "Six-Dollar Burger" -- after catching a spot promoting it for four dollars. And guess what? It tasted like a million dollars. Its irritating commercials suddenly became a "best kept secret" for baby boomers born before 1964. Carl's Jr. ads are NOT targeting ME. They are NOT targeting Generation X'ers born from 1964 to 1979 either. No, they're targeting Generations Y and Z, the so-called "New Millennials" born from 1979 to 1992, hip young adults who are in their late teens to early 30s. Until that "Six-Dollars-for-Four" promo, I reflexively switched away from Carl's Jr. commercials. Now I don't. I'm not looking for hip. I'm looking for a good buy and now I know their products are good.

** But that was an unusual case whereby Carl's Jr. got away with guerrilla marketing its burgers in a juvenile way. Its marketing is definitely NOT the same as McDonald's or Wendy's. Carl's Jr. ads are "in-your-face," but they're not grossly offensive. In sum, and this will sound silly to the "suits upstairs," but Guerrilla Marketing Rule #1 is you can get away with being juvenile -- but you CANNOT be offensive.

** An example of a "do-it-yourself-guerrilla-marketing-campaign-that-blew-up" -- involved the father of a six-year-old Colorado boy who was allegedly "trapped in a runaway balloon." Today we know it was a poorly-thought-out stunt. For all of his efforts, instead of landing a TV reality contract, the boy's father was arrested, earning the scorn of millions. His stunt, which held a nation spellbound for hours, emerged as a cruel and offensive hoax.

** And yet -- during the same four-month window as the runaway balloon hoax -- "quasi-guerrilla-marketing efforts" by -- Michaele Salahi, the glamorous wife who crashed a White House dinner with her husband...

...landed her a reality TV show gig on Bravo ...while 29-year-old Justin Halpern of San Diego, who posted R-rated comments on Twitter uttered by his hilarious 74-year old dad...landed him a book deal with It Books (an imprint of Harper-Collins) and a TV show from CBS (since canceled, click on the image below)...

** I describe the two examples above as successful "quasi-guerrilla marketing" efforts because their creators were never assured of positive outcomes -- and their offbeat efforts did not "appear" to be premeditated to garner anything beyond amusing notoriety for themselves and their friends. What they got instead was a bonus -- and that's word-of-mouth buzz that spread virally and explosively on the Internet.

** Thus Guerrilla Marketing Rule #2 is you must strive to create an illusion of against-the-grain attitudinal thinking -- combined with an equally illusory feeling of spontaneity and surprise. In my business, we call this creating a message or a series of events -- that the ultra-competitive media finds too compelling to ignore. The media KNOWS what you're doing and might even hate it. But some producers can't afford to ignore you -- lest their competitors leave them behind in a cloud of dust.

** Case in point is the controversial guerrilla marketing video below featuring our hero, a clever mouse. It mixes pop culture tunes from the Carpenters ("Top of the World"), the Doors ("The End") and Survivor ("Eye of the Tiger") -- with morbid imagery designed to catch viewers in a "joke" that isn't as ghastly as it seems. But what's it trying to sell?

** Since last fall, the video has gone viral, mostly in the United Kingdom where it was created. It has become such a sensation -- that it's been written up in stories "across the pond" -- in the U.K. version of Esquire, the London Daily Star and Tweakerzine. But you have to watch all 88 seconds of the video to get "the joke." Some viewers don't even get there. They are so turned off by what they see, they indeed "tune out" before it ends.

** But viewers who DO react with revulsion -- don't matter to the video's creator. Such viewers are not his "customers." Click below.

** Does the guerrilla marketing video above -- "go over the line?" Only to audiences who don't matter to its creator. People who think of mice as disgusting, disease-carrying creatures -- suddenly recoil in horror at the "thought" of anything bad happening to just ONE of them. He's the video's "hero," we think, this is how he's presented. We ROOT for him. And indeed, at the end, the mouse DOES prevail. You discover you've been punk'd, that this is a "commercial" for a luxury brand of strong cheddar cheese.

** But no, you would be wrong. There is no such thing as Nolan's Cheddar Cheese," which is tagged as being "Seriously Strong" (which itself is the name of a real-life brand made in Scotland). But "Nolan's Cheddar" doesn't exist. The video is a hoax. A little research and you discover it's a faux commercial designed to generate curiosity and traffic for its creator, 29-year-old British animatronic-animator John Nolan.

** John Nolan studied cinematography at the London Film Academy in 2007 -- and earned a degree in Make-Up & Technical Effects for the Performing Arts from the London College of Fashion in 2002. He's worked on several television and film productions, including "Dr. Who," "Clash of the Titans" (2010), two Harry Potter movies ("Prisoner of Azkaban" in 2003 and "The Goblet of Fire" in 2005), "Where the Wild Things Are" (2009), "Hellboy 2" (2007), "The Brother's Grimm" (2003) and commercials for Nestlé tea and T-Mobile (2009).

** Thus we come to Guerrilla Marketing Rule #3. Know your target audience. Of course this sounds like ridiculously simple common sense, but it's excruciatingly true in Mr. Nolan's case, because he is clearly guerrilla marketing himself to TV and film producers. These are his true customers. You, a member of the general public, are just along for the ride. If you find it entertaining, fine. If not, Mr. Nolan doesn't care. How do I know he doesn't care? "Linda's" horrified reaction, whose words are posted at the top of this story -- were also spotlighted on the splash page of Nolan's website. (They were taken down in late March-early April 2010.)

** According to the London Daily Star, Nolan's guerrilla marketing video took two months and $1,000 to create. Not a bad investment considering the type of "payday" he's chasing. Beyond training a real mouse to scurry to the bait, Nolan says the dead mouse is actually an already dead rat he procured elsewhere. He says that rat "was actually a robot I made covered in silicon. It still had its real hair and nails of a dead rat, but I had to punch this in individually into the synthetic skin, a bit like how hair transplants work."

** In sum, guerrilla marketing and PR is anything that compels people to pay attention using iconoclastic methods. They do NOT have to be as extreme as the examples cited here. But you do have to be mindful that everything is a competition for attention. For me, it can be as conservative as doing what I describe as "hard-linking" a client's product or service -- to a much larger issue or problem that's oft overlooked.

** For example, if I alert the media about a bunch of happy kids painting an inner-city school on a weekend -- that's a strong visual. TV might cover it, but it will just be a 15-second "feel good" story. But if I can weave neighborhood crime statistics into the story and prove the event is a way to keep kids off the street, it becomes a bona-fide news story that reaches beyond the kids and into the faces of local and state leaders for a response. The kids become "poster children" for others like themselves -- about an issue that's bigger than themselves. What's "guerrilla" about this tactic -- is taking a random "feel-good" event -- and generating greater "urgency" by placing it contextually against a backdrop of a national problem for which there isn't one exclusive solution.

** After spending years on a newsroom desk, being on the business end of a lot of inane PR pitches, I've gotten a better feel for what media types are looking for to preserve and enhance the value of their OWN jobs. In sum, it's not about you. It's about everybody else. So as you sand down the rough edges of commercialism so prevalent in your outreach efforts today -- if possible, you should strive to ensure that ALL of your guerrilla marketing and PR efforts are framed in a way that's funny or clever, that educates, amuses and entertains -- OR addresses a concern that's relatable to all.

Original material © 2010-2012 by David Kusumoto Communications.

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