Each year, America spends about $250 billion on marketing and advertising — more than the entire GDP of Thailand. Too bad most of that money is a complete waste. For an increasingly savvy, TiVo-equipped public, our brains seem to shut down whenever something registers as “advertising.” Which means all those marketing creatives at the big ad firms have had no choice but to, well, get more creative.
Some advertisers have relied on product placement (think James Bond stopping mid-gunfight for a refreshing sip of Heineken). Others have attempted to make their ads so entertaining that people will watch them in spite of the sales pitch. And then there’s the more mischievous route — the grassroots, take-it-to-the-streets method — and that’s where guerrilla marketing comes in.
Dirt-cheap and chock full of trickery, guerrilla marketing is advertising with a wink. The successful campaigns usually corral attention through subversive means before revealing their true purpose, and they distinguish themselves by being so clever that even once the bait and switch is revealed, there’s no negative outcry.
In other words, even though consumers know they’ve been duped, the reaction amounts to nothing more than a bashful, “Oh Pepsi! We can’t stay mad at you!”
And it’s with that good-humored and awe-inspired mindset that we pay homage to the best “gotcha” moments in advertising.
1. The Blair Witch Project
Arguably the most important aspect of a successful guerrilla campaign is staying one step ahead of the public. As consumers become more attuned to ad agency efforts, marketers have to figure out how to attack the mob from unexpected angles. The brand standard for catching the public off guard? 1999’s The Blair Witch Project. With no stars, no script, and a budget of around $50,000, University of Central Florida Film School pals Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez successfully scrubbed out the line between reality and fiction.
The film’s tagline set the stage: “In October of 1994, three student filmmakers disappeared in the woods near Burkittsville, Maryland, while shooting a documentary. A year later, their footage was found.” Audiences were expected to believe what they were watching — shaky, low-quality videotape of three runny-nosed kids weeping in the woods — was an edited-down version of real recovered footage. And while it was certainly an inventive way to challenge the boundaries of cinematic storytelling (not to mention justifying the low-budget look of the film), Blair Witch didn’t exactly seem poised to rival Titanic. That is, until an inventive guerrilla marketing scheme was devised.
To ease the suspension of disbelief and stir up some buzz, Sánchez created a Web site devoted to the Blair Witch — a fictitious, woods-based specter who’d been snapping up Maryland kids for the last century. Although the legend was created out of whole cloth, it was soon snapped up by gullible Interneters everywhere, and a first-ballot hall of fame urban legend was born. Pretty soon, thousands of people were terrified of the Blair Witch. Even when the actors who played the “film students” started showing up (alive) doing interviews about the movie, many across the country refused to believe the Blair Witch wasn’t real.
From that point, the “I’ve got to see for myself” effect took over, and Blair Witch dominated at the box office. Considered the most effective horror hoax since Orson Welles’ The War Of The Worlds broadcast, the film grossed $250 million worldwide. Not a bad return for Artisan Entertainment, which paid only $1 million for the flick after its Sundance screening.
2. Acclaim Entertainment
Nowhere are the semi-criminal aspects of guerrilla marketing more important than in pitching to video gamers. Regular folks might occasionally enjoy being duped by an unusually clever campaign, but gamers seem to suck down daring and deception like a Big Gulp of Mountain Dew. The more the stunts flaunt the law, the more the gaming demographic seems to like them.
The undisputed high-score holder in this renegade arena is Acclaim Entertainment, a plucky little company that began as a one-room outfit in Oyster Bay, New York, and bloomed into a multinational juggernaut. Eschewing artistry in favor of an “all publicity is good publicity” philosophy, Acclaim stirs up the stuffy types — and then laughs all the way to the bank. One of its bedrock tactics is to offer people money for performing some insane stunt on behalf of its upcoming game. Prior to the release of “Turok: Evolution,” for instance, the company offered £500 to the first five U.K. citizens who’d legally change their names to Turok. (Almost 3,000 people tried to claim the prize.) Later, promoting the release of “Shadow Man 2,” Acclaim announced it would pay the relatives of the recently deceased to place promotional ads on the headstones of their dearly departed. The company said the promotional fee might “particularly interest poorer families.”
The latter campaign was, of course, shouted down. But Acclaim blew it off and said the whole thing was a joke — right after its name had been conveniently plastered all over the headlines. In fact, many of the company’s schemes are designed to die on the vine that way. Acclaim actually counts on law enforcement and city officials to shut down their antics — preferably as publicly as possible. In 2002, the company announced its plans to promote “Gladiator: Sword of Vengeance” using something called “bloodvertising.” Touting it as the bloodiest game of all time, Acclaim said it was developing bus shelter ads that would seep a red, blood-like substance onto city sidewalks throughout the course of seven days. Officials thought that might not be in the best taste, so the campaign was aborted, as the world looked on. Also in 2002, Acclaim offered to pay all speeding tickets incurred in the U.K. on the day its racing game “Burnout 2″ was released. Naturally, the bobbies balked, feeling that removing the consequences for speeding might encourage people to speed. Acclaim judiciously rescinded the offer, but, yet again, not before the name “Burnout 2″ was burned into the public consciousness.
The thing about Internet domain names is that they’re frequently difficult to remember. They have “krayzee” spellings, or “numb3rs” in them, or they’re only tangentially related to the products they offer. (What does “fogdog” have to do with sports equipment, anyway?) And in 1999, name recognition was one of the main problems facing half.com, an eBay-esque online marketplace that allows people to sell used items for fixed prices without the hassle of an auction. “There is such a dot-com clutter out there,” half.com CEO Joshua Kopelman said at the time. “We wanted to do something innovative to get some visibility in the crowd.”
That something turned out to be giving the 360-person town of Halfway, Oregon, $100,000 and a new computer lab to rename itself half.com for one year. When media outlets picked up the story, half.com (both town and Web site) got some much-needed publicity. Within weeks of its launch, the site was covered by the Today show, The Wall Street Journal, and The New York Times. Time magazine even called the renaming arrangement “one of the greatest publicity coups in history.”
The man who literally put half.com on the map was the site’s then VP of marketing, Mark Hughes. Hughes, who is now proprietor of buzzmarketing.com, managed to generate so much publicity for half.com that only three weeks after the renaming was announced, eBay snapped it up for a cool $313 million. And while half.com is probably the most successful town/product renaming event in history, it’s not the only one. In 1950, Hot Springs, New Mexico, rechristened itself Truth or Consequences after a popular game show, and in 2005, Clark, Texas, decided to go by DISH, Texas, in exchange for a decade of free satellite TV.
4. Booty Call
It’s not easy to draw attention to yourself on the streets of New York, but Manhattan commuters took notice in 2004 when a group of scantily-clad (and extremely fit) boys and girls dashed around Grand Central Station flashing underwear with “Booty Call” printed across their shapely backsides. Drivers and passersby whipped out camera phones and digicams, and soon, pictures of the “Booty Call” flasher brigade were zooming around the internet.
The unprecedented display of indecent exposure turned out to be a publicity stunt executed by a company called (forgive us) ass-vertise.com. Booty Call was a new butt-building fitness class being hosted at the New York Health & Racquet Club. “It was fantastic,” said Jay Travis, brand manager for the club. “It would have cost us half million dollars to get that kind of publicity.” What kind of publicity did he get? In addition to the live eyes that saw the booties in question, some 800,000 interested parties followed the Booty Call trail to a website explaining the promotion.
5. Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film for Theaters
For every guerrilla marketing campaign, there is a guerrilla marketing cautionary tale that illustrates just how thin the line between creativity and criminality can be. And no better example exists than the 2007 effort to promote Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film for Theaters -a movie about an anthropomorphic crime-fighting happy meal that never actually fights any crime.
Basically, the whole hullabaloo began when a couple of Beantowners got freaked out by the sight of a Lite-Brite attached to an underpass. The board depicted a Moonite -an alien character from the Cartoon Network’s popular animated program Aqua Teen Hunger Force- “flipping the bird” at oncoming traffic. Although instantly recognizable to anyone who’d seen the show, the presence of a battery-powered circuit board carefully rigged to the support system of a bridge struck some Bostonians as menacing, and the police were summoned.
Fearing a terrorist attack, Boston authorities shut down major road and waterways to investigate the installations and even summoned bomb squads to destroy at least one of the devices. Early in the fiasco, stunned Gen-Xers began trying to explain what the LED boards represented, but the company who created and distributed the devices, Interence, Inc., made the mistake of not immediately speaking up. The hesitation later resulted in two freelance video artists, Peter Berdovsky and Sean Stevens, being arrested for placing “hoax devices.” Eventually, Turner Broadcasting -which operated Cartoon network- ‘fessed up, admitting they’d placed the devices in 10 cities as part of a guerrilla campaign. Turner paid $1 million to federal, state, and local agencies in Massachusetts to cover the investigation costs and a second $1 million in goodwill funding. And while the charges against the two artists were dropped, the general manager of the Cartoon Network stepped down in the wake of the incident.
While the TV show on which the film is based got an immediate 20-percent ratings boost, it’s still unknown what effect, if any, the incident had on ATHFCMFFT’s box office sales. But one thing is clear: If you’re going to buy the municipality of Boston a present, don’t get it a Lite-Brite.
6. Obey: Andre The Giant Has A Posse
Most marketing ploys are created to promote a product, but the global rash of stickers, posters, and stencils reading “Andre The Giant Has A Posse” exist only to urge people to question their surroundings. In essence, it’s an ad campaign against advertising.
As subversive as it is pervasive, what became known as the “Obey Giant” campaign began when Rhode Island School of Design art student Shepard Fairey made a bunch of stickers and started putting them up around Providence. Mimicking Soviet-style propaganda posters, the stickers featured the unlikely visage of late professional wrestler Andre “The Giant” Roussimoff accompanied by messages like “Obey” and “Andre the Giant Has A Posse.” The stickers’ message was unclear — yet clearly counterculture. It resonated with local skateboarders, rockers, and other underground types, and soon, many were asking to join in the fun. The stickers spread underground to New York, Los Angeles, and Boston, and within a few years, they were all over the world.
The Obey Giant campaign is the kind of thing that, once you see it for the first time, you start to see it everywhere. The stickers are hip and cryptic, and they capitalize on the fact that most people think it’s cool to be part of something not everyone understands. Beyond that, the campaign does have a high-minded mission — to create a kind of emptiness in the observer. The propaganda orders a person to do something (“obey”), but the viewer doesn’t know what to do or how to obey. Fairey hopes this confusion will make people question other directives they receive visually — namely, in ads.
These days, Fairey heads up a design and marketing company that reps youth-targeted brands, such as Pepsi and Universal Pictures. An anti-advertising ad campaign staged by a big-shot advertiser? It doesn’t get much more guerrilla than that.
7. Court TV
“Hi Steven,” started the billboard that suddenly appeared near Times Square in 2006. “Do I have your attention now? I know all about her, you dirty, sneaky, immoral, unfaithful, poorly-endowed slimeball. Everything’s caught on tape. Your (soon-to-be-ex) wife, Emily.”
As you might imagine, this little love note caught the attention of a lot of people, and more than a few of them raced to the Internet to find out who Emily was and what she had planned. Turns out, Emily was keeping a blog (thatgirlemily.blogspot.com) of her vengeful activities, which included giving away bottles from Steven’s prize wine collection and listing his work number as the contact for a “fabulous 750 square foot studio in Soho for a steal -$300/month.” Oh, and she also posted video clips of his adulterous shenanigans on YouTube.
The website quickly registered more than 1 million hits, and the billboard zipped across blogs and news sites around the world. As word spread, however, it came out that identical billboards were currently decrying Steven not only elsewhere in New York, but also in Los Angeles and Chicago. Was Steven simply a well-traveled adulterer, or was something fishy going on?
E-detectives everywhere picked up the scent, and within days, Emily and her familial woes were exposed as a guerrilla campaign promoting the second season of Court TV’s Parco P.I. -a docudrama series revealing the exploits of a private investigator. the network’s in-house marketing department had devised the campaign in an effort to create a believable female character who might hire a private investigator like the one on the show. They wanted the “Scorned Woman” campaign to raise awareness about the program and hoped it would give the public a chance to play detective themselves.
With millions of hits registered and millions of “fwd: Check out this site!” emails speeding across the globe, the ads were an unmitigated success. As with all great guerrilla campaigns, the ruse was so clever that, rather than sulking about being duped, people reacted with a collective, “Nice one. You got us.” They continued to forward the site to their friends, and the show continued enjoying increased exposure.
8. Médecins du Monde
Not all guerrilla campaigns are about the money. In fact, one of the cleverest and most altruistic grassroots marketing efforts was pulled off by a group called Médecins du Monde — an international humanitarian organization devoted to providing care for vulnerable populations around the world.
In late 2005, the French branch of the organization staged an extremely effective campaign to draw attention to the plight of the homeless in Paris. Christened the “tent city” initiative, the group distributed some 300 “two-second tents” to destitute Parisians sleeping outdoors. Equipped with the rapid-deploying tents (which didn’t require poles or pins), the homeless gathered in small groups of eight to 10 along the Quai d’Austerlitz and the Canal Saint-Martin. The prefab shelter, which bore the Médecins du Monde logo, drew immediate attention to the number of homeless people in the area and provoked such incredible public outrage that the city was forced to act. A rare off-season government session was convened, and officials admitted that Paris’ homeless shelters were vastly overcrowded. They immediately announced the allocation of nearly $10 million for emergency housing.
While some guerrilla campaigns border on art — baffling consumers with their cocky blend of ingenuity and imagination — others take a more boorish approach. During the 2002 Bledisloe Cup rugby match, for example, two young men suddenly burst onto the field at a crucial moment and ran across the pitch wearing nothing but the Vodafone logo painted on their backs.
Admittedly, streaking at a rugby match isn’t exactly uncommon, but sponsored streaking very much is. Adding to the drama? The fact that the match was held in Telstra Stadium — Telstra being Vodafone’s competitor.
In the end, one of the streakers was fined $3,500 (AUS), and a maelstrom of criticism was directed at Vodafone. However, millions of TV viewers witnessed the event live, and it was covered everywhere from CNN to the front page of the The Times in London. For a company seeking to sell itself as young and brash, such backlash was a ringing endorsement.
These day, the movie-going public is almost habitually beguiled by blockbuster summer films. Zillions of people dutifully line up to see X-Men, or Spider-Man, or Superman, or whatever the opening weekend record-demolisher will be. But this wasn’t always the case. The summer “event film” phenomenon wes a lot to a little Tim Burton flick called Batman.
months before Burton’s Batman was ever released, it was already the biggest movie of 1989. Hats, shirts, posters, sunglasses, medallions, key chains -it was virtually impossible to purchase anything that didn’t have a yellow-and-black batwing insignia emblazoned on it. And all this for a film no one had even seen! Never before had a movie reaped such rewards from word-of-mouth buzz. In fact, the marketing of Batman established a bedrock principle of guerrilla marketing -that word on the street will put more butts in the seats than any slogan or jingle. But how did Batman’s production team succeed in getting average Joes the world over to hype their film? It all began with an attempt to assuage a couple of comic book geeks.
When word leaked out that a Burton-directed Batman film was underway, many comic book traditionalists panicked. Michael Keaton, then known mostly as a comedic presence, was slated the play the Dark Knight, which caused Batman fans to fret that the film would be nothing more than a gussied-up redux of the campy, almost farcical Batman TV series. To quell fears, the heavyweight production tandem of Peter Guber and Jon peters (Flashdance, The Color Purple, Rain Man) quickly cobbled together a teaser trailer to demonstrate the new film’s dedication to a dark, comic book style Batman. It went out to theaters nationwide and, before long, bedazzled fans everywhere were buying tickets to other movies, where they’d watch the Batman trailer and then head for the bat-exits. McDonald’s got on board offering bat-themed kid’s meals; Coke put out special cans; and there was even a tie-in novel in the works.
When the actual movie finally arrived, it premiered on more than 2,000 screens nationwide and laid waste to all existing opening weekend records. Although it has since been displaced by its descendants, Batman made more than $40 million in its first weekend (a record at that time), more than $100 million in its first ten days, and more than $410 million worldwide by the end of its theatrical run. It was the biggest earner of the year and remains one of the top-50 highest-grossing movies in American history. Yet all of that still pales in comparison to the merchandising, which made an additional $750 million.
The article above, written by Chris Connolly, is from the July-August 2007 issue of mental_floss magazine. It is reprinted here with permission.
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10 of the Greatest Guerrilla Marketing Campaigns of All-Time