LONDON (AdAge.com) -- What kind of brand would want to associate with Chatroulette? Well, French Connection -- of FCUK fame -- would, and the U.K.-based clothing retailer is using the random, anonymous chat room for a marketing push. No stranger to racy, risk-taking -- and some would say outright offensive -- marketing, French Connection is embracing a site that connects people to random strangers through webcam chats.
In the promotion, the first person to prove they have used Chatroulette to set up a date wins $375 of vouchers to spend at a French Connection store on a "real life date-worthy outfit." The prize may be small, but the risks are huge, considering that much of what happens on Chatroulette, set up in November 2009, is pornography at best.
In January 2010, Chatroulette had a million visitors, according to ComScore, and February figures are expected to show those numbers have quadrupled. When a person tires of a conversation, they can press "next" to move on. It is impossible to spend more than a few minutes on the site without coming up against male genitalia, but it can also be a fascinating journey into the lives of strangers around the world, and celebrities such as Ashton Kutcher and the Jonas Brothers have been known to turn up on it unexpectedly.
William Woodhams, director of marketing at French Connection, isn't too concerned about the possible pitfalls of sending people to hook up with strangers online. He said, "We've hijacked the site; we're a fashion brand and we wanted to get involved in an irreverent way. It's a fun medium, although it's also weird, sad and strange. We only put up a small prize, because we don't want to look like we're trying too hard."
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The tease, and the rules, are posted on the brand's website, with this Chatroulette challenge: "Can you prove yourself by venturing into the most terrifying terrain on the internet to seduce a woman." The contest opened Feb. 26, and entries are being accepted on the French Connection site until March 12, with proof of the scheduled hook-up required in the form of pasting comments or a screen grab from the Chatroulette site. French Connection worked with digital agency Poke, London, and didn't get or seek permission from Chatroulette for the contest.
No stranger to controversy
French Connection has never feared controversy. Its "FCUK" campaign, first seen 13 years ago, offended many Brits over a number of years. Its current campaign, introducing "The Man" and "The Woman," has unsettled some consumers by choosing a relatively mature, unkempt, bearded man as its star.
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In fact, the Chatroulette campaign has already attracted complaints, initially from people who objected to the fact that it was about men picking up women. French Connection reacted by opening up the competition, originally limited to men scoring a date with a woman, to women too.
Mr. Woodham said, "There is flexibility in our brand. The appeal of Chatroulette is that it's new and a bit dangerous. We're a fashion brand trying to talk to men, and there's not a lot of cool stuff on the internet in a fashion sense. I didn't want to just set up a computer game."
While the promotion could backfire horribly, French Connection could have something to teach other marketers about giving up their fear of social networking, and embracing the risks and rewards it offers.
Stuart Parkinson, a planner at London agency VCCP, part of Chime Communications, said, "People are a lot more comfortable online than brands are. [The Chatroulette tie-up] sets up French Connection as closer to the consumer than anyone else."
Mr. Parkinson said he believes brands that don't take risks are reducing their audience to the lowest common denominator. He said, "French Connection understands that people don't mind, and demonstrates a trust in its audience -- a faith in the consumer -- that makes a better brand statement than any ad. They've done something risky and edgy, not just talked about doing something risky and edgy in a TV spot."
Other brands unlikely to follow
But few marketers are likely to emulate French Connection. Matt Simpson, head of digital at OMD Group U.K., said, "French Connection has continually danced along the line of what's acceptable, and they seem to be operating on the 'No PR is bad PR' rule. Possibly a large part of the target market will love it, but it's likely to be outweighed by negative media coverage."
Mr. Simpson said he would not be recommending Chatroulette to clients. "It's a completely uncontrollable environment that plays to the absolute worst the web has to offer," he said. "This is a breeding ground for everything that could happen that is bad."
That doesn't mean that the success of Chatroulette should go unheeded. It proves both that consumers enjoy a little randomness, and that they are willing to embrace the webcam chat. However, while every marketer has a curiosity about social sites, most, Mr. Simpson said, are still asking, "How do we manufacture a low-risk situation?"
French Connection claims to have had "thousands" of entries, and the competition has attracted international media attention from the likes of Perez Hilton.