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Slate's Ad Report Card: Burger King's Buzz Marketing

NOAH ADAMS, host:

And on to the business of marketing now, our regular feature called Ad Report Card. As corporations look for new ways to get our attention, many are turning to what's called `buzz marketing,' enlisting regular people to contact their friends and spread word about a new product. The practice is beginning to annoy Seth Stevenson. He's the ad critic for the online magazine Slate.

SETH STEVENSON (Slate): A few weeks ago, on September 30th, I received an e-mail from a reader. It read: `Just by chance, do you know if they will be selling a BK King mask for Halloween?' I knew this referred to the plastic-headed King character from Burger King's ongoing ad campaign. I reviewed one of these ads a year ago, one where this guy wakes up to find a big plastic Burger King dude in his bed offering him a breakfast sandwich.

(Soundbite of Burger King ad)

Unidentified Man: That's right, the Double Croissanwich. Wake up with the King.

STEVENSON: But this e-mail seemed a slightly odd out-of-nowhere query. Before I could give it much thought, several more e-mails rolled in. Here's one from October 5th: `How can someone go about getting a Burger King head like the one in the commercials? This will make an excellent costume now that Halloween is approaching and everyone I know seems to eat at Burger King on a regular basis.' This e-mail smelled pungently fishy. Why were these readers--about six or seven in all--so eager to dress as a corporate mascot? Why did they get the idea at the exact same time? Why was no one asking about, say, GEICO caveman costumes? And wouldn't it be infinitely funnier to dress as the Dove ladies?

I called up Crispin, Porter & Bogusky, Burger King's ad agency, and--Well, how about that? It happens they have a Web site that sells King masks for $9 a pop. And the site launched on October 7th. Gosh, right after I started getting all those e-mails. Crispin acknowledged that these masks had been manufactured months ago to be ready in time for Halloween. I asked if the ad agency had covertly attacked my inbox. The PR guy answered, `Not that I know of.' I haven't heard back since.

Let's assume for a moment that Crispin used buzz marketing to fake me out and get my attention, as I'm convinced they did. Is there anything wrong with that? Well, for one thing, it's lying. All marketing is built on lies, of course. You won't get to date those blond twins if you drink Coors Light. But this is a more pointed deception than the stock fantasy offered by beer ads. At issue here is some deliberate misrepresentation.

According to recent articles in Ad Age, this type of thing is drawing a lot of watchdog scrutiny and may even become illegal. It bumps up against the industry's regulations on disclosure. Beyond that, it just ruins life for everyone. Once I became suspicious about the King mask e-mails, I started questioning every e-mail I received. The Word of Mouth Marketing Association has posted a code of ethics on its Web site. This urges advertisers to say who you're speaking for and never disguise your identity, which sounds wonderful but is not entirely plausible. What if my e-mailers had written: `I've been enlisted by Burger King's ad agency to pester you, so here goes'?

Of course, for now Crispin gets precisely what it wanted. Here I am talking about their stupid Halloween masks, just $9, makes a terrific costume. Wow. And as I look at the Web site now, it appears the mask was so popular that it completely sold out. This depresses me for two reasons. First, it's Halloween, the one night when transgression is celebrated and condoned. And we're all volunteering to dress up as corporate mascots? And, second, I can't help but wonder if this is another trick from Crispin, pretending the masks sold out to suggest hot demand. Is my paranoia spinning out of control, or is it just a natural response? Once you go down this rabbit hole, it's tough to get back out.

ADAMS: Opinion from Seth Stevenson, ad critic for the online magazine Slate.

DAY TO DAY is a production of NPR News with contributions from slate.com. I'm Noah Adams. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Seth Stevenson