TRASH TALKING

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How many trade groups does it take to police a fledgling marketing practice just beginning to gain broad awareness? At least two. One to create an ethical code and another to trash it thoroughly in public.

Over the past couple of months, a full-on mudslinging contest has broken out between a pair of organizations striving to gain credibility for buzz-marketing strategies. To the winner will go the spoils of being credited with creating the first formal set of guidelines for guerrilla marketing and its sometimes eyebrow-raising tactics.

It all began earlier this year when the Word of Mouth Marketing Association released a draft version of a code with provisions promoting honesty and consumer respect. The initiative hit problems immediately, including a failure to drum up any, well, word-of-mouth interest-only 10 people have so far registered their comments on the code at the organization's Web site.

Another headache came in the form of an ad campaign from a conservative organization unhappy that the code didn't ban the use of children in buzz marketing. Then, a rival group, the Viral & Buzz Marketing Association, fired off a press release that, in a less than stealthy fashion, lambasted WOMMA for "ethical inconsistencies, limited scope and exclusionary process."

Said WOMMA CEO Andy Sernovitz in response to those charges, "You have to question the motivations of anyone who opposes ethics. It doesn't make any sense whatsoever."

Somewhat strangely, both sides struggle to explain just what the ethical debate is over. At first blush, it seems to have something to do with whether or not deception is kosher in word-of-mouth campaigns. Justin Kirby, co-founder of VBMA also complains that his group was excluded from the process, while Mr. Sernovitz said VBMA was invited.

"It's a catastrophe because there seems to be an adolescent debate going on," Mr. Kirby said. As even some of the participants admit, the skirmishing has become a distraction during a boom for buzz marketing, when it's being turned to more frequently by marketers that are frustrated with traditional forms of reaching consumers.

Beyond the he-said, she-said, the entire fight seems to be shaping up as a grab for the title of the nascent industry's official body.

WOMMA certainly has a head start. Formed in November when it hired Mr. Sernovitz full-time, it's made up of about 60 member agencies, from boutique guerrilla shops to old-line global PR agencies like Edelman and Ketchum.

MYSTERY MEMBERS

True to the strategy of stealth, it's a little less clear just what VBMA is. Mr. Kirby insists it's a trade organization that's just as legitimate as its rival, with more members and with a greater geographical reach. One firm listed as a member on the VBMA Web site isn't aware of its membership. "I don't believe Edelman is a member of this organization," said a spokesman for the independent PR firm, which is a founding member of WOMMA.

Regardless of how the ethical firefight pans out, it's already caught the eye of National Institute on Media and the Family, best known as a watchdog for video-game content. In addition to mounting an ad campaign earlier this year and maintaining a blog devoted to buzz marketing, the group plans to publish a report card for the industry, much as it does for video games, according to a spokesman.

Word of Mouth Marketing Association

* Released draft version of code promoting honesty, respect

* Only 10 people have commented on WOMMA's Web site

* WOMMA group consists of 60 member agencies

Viral & Buzz Marketing Association

* Hits WOMMA for ethical inconsistencies, limited scope

* Claims to have greater reach, more members than WOMMA

* Some "members" deny knowledge of membership in group

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