Stealth Marketing – the 21st Century Con

Recent trends in advertising have blurred the line between corporate messaging and reality. Stealth marketing campaigns seek to convince unsuspecting individuals into believing they are receiving trustworthy (unbiased) product testimony, when in fact they are being conned. This is unethical, and erodes trust between individuals and service providers (Facebook) whose technologies are co-opted as part of the scam.

“And now a word from our sponsor…”

In days gone by those words made it clear to an audience where the entertainment stopped and the marketing began. There are other ways of marking that division: pages or frames in magazines clearly containing branded corporate messages; 30-second commercials placed in between show segments; radio advertisements with catchy tunes featuring brand name products; and billboards placed in the most conspicuous places in the landscape. We used to recognize advertisements when we saw them, and know when we were being marketed to, allowing us to make informed decisions. We ought to keep it that way.

Recent trends in advertising have made it harder to pick out the marketing in the stream of information. One example of this trend is product placement. In product placement campaigns products are embedded into story lines on tv shows, movies, mentioned by name in print media, all in an attempt to create a positive association with that product in the consumer’s mind. The idea is that if I see my favourite characters on a show drinking a particular brand of, say, beer, I’ll go out and try that beer.

Though product placement is a bit sneaky, it still sits above board. In the product placement campaign, I know I’m being marketed to. A television show, for example, is designed as a vehicle for marketing. Everything about it is contrived and fictional. I know that the characters on the show don’t care about the products–they aren’t real. I know that the testimony for a particular product is just a line written by some hired adman, designed to make me want to buy something.

Stealth marketing campaigns, on the other hand, are much more problematic. Here’s an example of a stealth marketing campaign (CBC – Spark, a fabulous podcast, did a segment explaining stealth marketing, which I highly recommend listening to. I’m borrowing from their general description here…):

You notice a friend request on Facebook that looks legitimate. It seems like a person you might have met at a party you attended over the weekend, so you decide (maybe reluctantly) to accept their friend request. It turns out that that person has been hired to “friend” as many people as possible in a particular demographic (you fit it) in order to plant marketing messages in your “news feed”. Because those messages are mixed in with other, non-ad-related posts, they are nearly impossible to pick out as advertisements.

What’s the problem, you ask? There are at least two, the first having to do with the fact that stealth marketing is deceptive by design, the other having to do with the effect that stealth marketing has on trust relationships.

In stealth marketing deception is the primary tool of the trade. Unlike the product placement campaign, stealth marketing is intended to come off looking like spontaneous, real-world, honest testimony, the kind you might get from a friend while eating a hot dog at a barbecue, or from a well-intentioned stranger at the supermarket while deciding which mustard to buy. Thus, it is meant to appear trustworthy. But stealth marketing messages are anything but trustworthy. Stealth messages do not contain honest “testimony”. On the contrary, the information they contain is completely biased because it is generated only to sell a product. Stealth messages also seek to give you the very false impression that they were generated by someone who sees you as a person, when in fact their only interest in you is as a potential customer.

These deceptions are meant to obfuscate the lines between marketing and “real-life”, to the point that the consumer becomes disempowered in her ability to make an informed choice. Eliminating the marketing “frame” from the view of the consumer while delivering targeted stealth marketing messages makes a particular product seem worthy of endorsement against the backdrop of all of an individual’s past experiences. If I tell a friend that I think a particular toothbrush really cleans my teeth, the information is, and should be, considered in the context of our friendship, and of all the toothbrushes I’ve trialled in comparison over the years. In that exchange I also have something to lose–my friend’s trust–if the toothbrush turns out to be useless in their eyes. Those facts act as a sort of proxy for research: my friend can take it on my word that he has reasons to try the toothbrush, and doesn’t need to do much additional research in order to make the decision to go out and try it.

Put the marketing frame back in view, and the stealth marketer is no more trusted than a billboard, meaning an individual receiving that information knows she has to do some more research before making a decision to switch toothbrushes. Stealth marketing trades on the false impression of a lived background of experience against which to test a claim, in an attempt to eliminate the critical lens through which we all view marketing messages.

In addition to being inherently unethical, stealth marketing also promotes effects that are undesirable. Because stealth marketing campaigns are so often carried out in online social networks, they have the effect of harming the trust one places in those networks. That is bad for everyone. Social networks have the potential to transform the way that people connect with one another, and act in the world. If we allow stealth marketing to gain a legitimate foothold, the trust we’re willing to place in those social networks will be compromised.

There is nothing good about stealth marketing. It is nothing more than a 21st century con, and all of its practitioners should be considered con artists. It’s in all of our best interests to oppose stealth marketing wherever we see it trying to put down roots.

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