Strangers or friends advocating a product or a cause may not always be expressing their true value. And the meteoric rise of undiscovered products or people may be less organic, and more orchestrated than people think.
More and more examples have occurred recently, including an interesting article in today’s WSJ about rising singer Marie Digby (link at end of post), reveal corporate interests promoting ‘fake’ or astroturf marketing campaigns. (Other examples are LonelyGirl15 on You Tube which professed to be a home-schooled sheltered teen and proved to be a Creative Artists New Zealand-based professional actress Jessica Rose looking to sign a movie deal; or many of the ‘environmental’ grassroots campaigns that profess to be anti-environmentalist but are in reality corporate fronts.)
Jonathan Ressler, a Marketing Specialist, recently profiled in the documentary, The Corporation, explains how companies pay individuals to play up how great various brands are to their friends, pretending that they are just telling their friends from the heart, not out of self-interest. [This has been called undercover marketing, stealth marketing, covert marketing, guerilla marketing or self-interest marketing.]
These guerilla marketing campaigns may be good for raising sales of products — for the moment we trust our friends’ recommendations more than corporate pitches — but as more horror stories emerge of shills pretending to be ‘friends’, it runs the risk of having all of us trust our friends and their opinions less. (‘Just because you’re not paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you!’) Or a more just market punishment is if shills who are uncovered are ostracized by their friends for trading their social networks for lucre, but that presumes that people will know who is shilling.
The NYT magazine recently featured an interesting profile of Rick Rubin, the new president cum-yogi of Columbia Records. In it, Rubin mentions his amazement with Paul Potts (the British mechanic who hides an amazing silky baritone voice). Potts has become a YouTube sensation after his win on the British equivalent of American Idol (with over 20 million YouTube views). But the article makes one wonder how big a role Columbia Records played a part in stoking his ‘grassroots’ viral marketing campaign, especially since Rubin is so savvy about using young employees to create more buzz.
Full story at Download This: YouTube Phenom Has a Big Secret — Singer Marie Digby Isn’t Quite What She Appears; ‘Make People Like Me’ (WSJ, 9/6/07, Ethan Smith and Peter Lattman, p. A1). Article highlights follow:
“A 24-year-old singer and guitarist named Marie Digby has been hailed as proof that the Internet is transforming the world of entertainment.
“What her legions of fans don’t realize, however, is that Ms. Digby’s career demonstrates something else: that traditional media conglomerates are going to new lengths to take advantage of the Internet’s ability to generate word-of-mouth buzz.
“Ms. Digby’s simple, homemade music videos of her performing popular songs have been viewed more than 2.3 million times on YouTube. Her acoustic-guitar rendition of the R&B hit ‘Umbrella’ has been featured on MTV’s program ‘The Hills’ and is played regularly on radio stations in Los Angeles, Sacramento and Portland, Ore. Capping the frenzy, a press release last week from Walt Disney Co.’s Hollywood Records label declared: “Breakthrough YouTube Phenomenon Marie Digby Signs With Hollywood Records.”
Ms. Digby feigned surprise at her marketing rise in an Aug. 16 MySpace blog entry and never mentioned the backing of Hollywood records or the role they played in her rise. Digby admitted in interviews that she left out Hollywood Records because “I didn’t feel like it was something that was going to make people like me.” But Hollywood Records played an integral part, advising Ms. Digby, 18 months before her meteoric rise to feature video covers of popular hits by Maroon 5 or Nelly Furtado so that searches for these songs would ‘discover her’, they bought her an Apple computer and software and advised her on how to get her songs online. And it was the posting of a cover of Rihanna’s ‘Umbrella’ that launched her. Hollywood Records distributed high-quality versions of her songs to radio stations and arranged a deal with iTunes.
When radio stations ‘found’ her and invited her onto the shows, she played the rube, saying “‘I’m usually the listener calling in, you know, just hoping that I’m going to be the one to get that last ticket to the Star Lounge with [pop star] John Mayer!’ ” The WSJ reported that station programming executives “now acknowledge they had booked Ms. Digby’s appearance through Hollywood Records, and were soon collaborating with the label to sell ‘Umbrella’ as a single on iTunes.” [The radio station didn’t discover her through random YouTube searches of others’ hits.] She later faked the similar part of a discovered diamond in the rough when on Carson Daly’s show.
The WSJ notes that “at a concert last week at a Los Angeles nightclub called the Hotel Cafe, Ms. Digby played to a sold-out crowd of young fans. Even with the club’s handful of tables reserved for Hollywood Records executives and their guests, Ms. Digby continued to play the ingenue. Introducing ‘Umbrella,’ Ms. Digby told the audience: ‘I just turned on my little iMovie, and here I am!’ “