Cannes 07

A Letter From the Editor

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I was hanging out at the Bull & Bear, the clubby, mortally unhip bar of New York's Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, doing my best Mickey Rourke impersonation, when an attractive stranger came up to me and asked if she could buy me a bourbon. Needless to say, I was smitten. With the, eh, bourbon. Knob Creek. Like velvet. You should try it someday.

Though I confess that, like Jimmy Carter, I've felt "lust in my heart" (I've always loved that he said "heart," not "groin" or "pants" - the guy was one classy President!), there were no romantic undertones to the encounter. The offer was made on behalf of Knob Creek's marketing firm, anxious to have midtown power brokers try the upscale hooch. (Clearly, I was diluting the intended demographic sample - my humble apologies to the Kentucky distillers.) I also got a keychain with a little bronze bottle of Knob Creek. A nice keychain, too. I was clutching it just the other night as I watched Barfly for the 27th time.

Giving away samples is a tried-and-true marketing practice that makes sense. As a consumer, I don't mind it. You get a gratis drink, or a pack of smokes if that's your thing, and if it isn't, you mutter "Thanks but no thanks" and the nice lady gets out of your face.

But, like most consumers, I do mind being taken for a ride, and that's where Big Fat enters the picture.

It may sound like an industry alliance of lard pushers comparable to Big Tobacco, but Big Fat is really a small if rapidly growing firm that specializes in something called "undercover marketing." One of its clients is a brand of flavored water, stuff that apparently mixes well with vodka. To promote the product, Big Fat has taken to sending its teams of beautiful young people to downtown bars, where they're expected to strike up as many conversations as they can that include a favorable mention of the water, all the while keeping their affiliation a secret. These exchanges can be unintentionally comical, not to mention a bit Stepford Wives-ish. According to my local paper, which carried an interesting article about Big Fat, here's some typical dialog:

Woman 1: "I feel so great, so real. It's this drink!"

Woman 2: "Would you feel the same way with soda? No! I feel alive!"

Then they clink glasses.

The repartee is, let's say, not quite worthy of Cheers, and I can't imagine that this approach works. If I overheard two people having a tete-a-tete like that, I'd search their foreheads for the telltale lobotomy scars. If none were evident, the only other possible conclusion would be that the drink they're discussing kills 98 percent of all brain cells in three seconds or less.

Don't get me wrong. I love the idea of viral marketing. I applaud branding firms and ad agencies that understand we live in a post-advertising society, where people have both TiVo (the biggest consumer empowerment tool since the remote control) and a deep aversion to the merciless avalanche of commercial messages. Most agencies have yet to wake up to the reality that there are methods to reach and influence consumers that do not involve 30-second spots and magazine spreads.

I would just really like for those newer methods not to be so patently deceptive.

Big Fat's chief strategy officer, John Palumbo, claims that the use of undercover marketing teams is all about creating "credibility." I know what he means (media-savvy young consumers distrust advertisers and are more likely to believe paid shills they mistake for their peers), but it's still a mongrel of an argument. Unlike flavored water poured over vodka, credibility and deceit never mix. You can't build a brand without first building trust, and the fastest way to squander trust is to play people for suckers - to feed them advertising bullshit that's disguised, in this case, as genuine bar banter. If the Federal Trade Commission eventually cracks down on under-the-radar marketing practices, as the newspaper article darkly hinted it might, don't believe I will be drowning my sorrow in a bottle of Big Fat's H2O. A celebratory swig of Knob Creek is more like it.

Leaving Creativity to start a kids' book club at a Harlem public school is assistant editor Tess Wilkinson-Ryan, who did a bang-up job writing The Work and The Buzz (and even some great feature stories) since last spring. A fond tip o' the hat, and all best! And a warm welcome to Gabi Horn (ghorn@crain.com, 212.210.0190, who will assume Tess's duties on August 1. Gabi is a graduate of Columbia University's Journalism School, and a former associate editor and staff writer at POZ Magazine.

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