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Viral marketing breaks through

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Adults can't tell teen-agers anything these days-at least not through traditional TV and print ads, say marketing experts who are jumping through hoops to get Generation Y's attention through guerrilla and viral tactics.

Since teen-agers spend up to 6 hours a day playing videogames, listening to music, surfing the Internet and chatting with friends on the phone-often simultaneously-there isn't much time left to passively observe ads, researchers say. "Kids multitask at a very high level; so they can play games on the computer while sending instant messages, listening to the stereo and watching TV while a friend is sitting on the couch," says Greg Livingston, exec VP of WonderGroup Youth Marketing, an agency exclusively targeting kids under age 20. "When we asked kids in one survey to list all their activities in one day, it added up to 28 hours."

Add to that the fact that today's kids are extremely savvy about marketing, and they tend to be suspicious of commercial messages.

Word-of-mouth then becomes a powerful ad medium, and since the essence of such viral marketing is having consumers tell one another about products and services, in this case it's all about getting kids to talk to each other about brands. Equally powerful is the effect of fun, unexpected experiences connected to brands, which is where guerrilla marketing, or event marketing using surprise tactics, comes in.

A CREDIBLE PRESENCE

"To be accepted as a legitimate idea by kids, brands have to meet kids on their level and become a credible presence in their lifestyles-brands have to be real, and that can't be accomplished through traditional advertising alone," says Drew Cook, a marketing and communications manager for Ford Motor Co., which is targeting teens in guerrilla and event marketing activities this summer promoting Ford Ranger pickup trucks.

Although only those on the older end of Gen Y can legally drive, teens overall affect parents' buying decisions, and automakers acknowledge this in their marketing.

WPP Group's J. Walter Thompson USA, Detroit, is orchestrating the Ford effort and Ford's sponsorship of the Vans Triple Crown Series of extreme sports competitions in skateboarding, snowboarding, surfing, wakeboarding, freestyle motocross (motorcycle) and BMX bicycle races.

Ford has a multimillion-dollar investment in the footwear marketer's sports series, including on-site presence at championships where Ranger trucks will be displayed. Ford also is sponsoring one top athlete in each extreme sport, including supplying each of the six with a Ranger truck and a small spending allowance; the truck has a major presence on the Vans Triple Crown area of the vans.com site.

"By being at these events and allying with top athletes, Ford is showing its commitment to these sports, which has tremendous impact on influential teen-agers who compete in these events and spread the word to other kids," says Bill Carter, president of Fuse Integrated Sports Marketing, a Burlington, Vt.-based sports marketing agency that helps JWT execute the effort. Print ads via JWT in extreme sports magazines back the Ford Ranger activity.

VW GETS FIT

At Volkswagen of America, teens' innate sense of mischief is being harnessed to make scenes on college campuses nationwide by inviting kids to see how many can fit into a Volkswagen Beetle-the record is 26 at Babson College. Havas Advertising's Arnold Worldwide, Boston, is VW's agency; Student Advantage, also based in Boston, executes on-campus events.

Viral meets meat snacks in a campaign for GFI Holdings' Slim Jim, which hired Omnicom Group's GMR Marketing, New Berlin, Wis., to stage an effort this summer dubbed the "Slim Jim Rebelli-ache Tour." Young people between 17 and 21 years old have been hired as part-time marketing representatives to visit skateboard shops, record stores and clothing outlets where teens hang out. At each location, the representatives talk about Slim Jim, handing out product samples and "rave cards" promoting a Web site created for the summer promotion (rebelliache.com).

"The site and the attitude of the promotion are designed to be a teen's dream and a parent's nightmare-that kind of gross, rebellious humor teen-agers love," says Dave Rosenberg, VP-strategic planning at GMR. The site includes a garish newspaper titled The Vile Times and the headline: "President declares Rebelli-ache Tour a national disaster."

So far, the staged viral campaign is getting "positive results through anecdotes and general feedback," says Mr. Rosenberg, who concedes such efforts are difficult to measure.

PIRATE RADIO

For Pepsi-Cola Co.'s Mountain Dew, GMR is doing a guerrilla marketing type of campaign, dubbed "Mountain Dew Pirate Radio," centering on a fleet of 16-foot mobile marketing units. Trolling the U.S. this summer, the trucks promote underground "pirate radio" broadcasts of new, up-and-coming local musicians. The stations are broadcast only within a 1-mile range in each market, and kids have to go to mountaindew.com to get details about when and how to hear the artists.

Mountain Dew spreads information about the broadcasts through appearances of its vehicles at public events and locations where teen-agers gather. The PepsiCo unit's effort includes handing out samples of Mountain Dew. Currently, the tour is distributing an average of 1,750 cans each day and getting "hundreds" of teens to tune in to its sponsored radio broadcasts.

The Public Broadcasting Service is using a guerrilla marketing approach to get teens talking about "American High," a 13-part documentary series it began airing this spring. PBS called upon its Minneapolis agency, Publicis Groupe's Fallon, and its events and promotions arm, Fallon Intersect, which came up with the idea of targeting teens in shopping centers. By setting up in malls funky, teen-targeted lounges where clips of the series are screened, the agency bet teens would wander in-and they are. More than 7,000 Gen Y-ers were exposed to the promotion in April and May, and 1,300 T-shirts were distributed, estimates PBS. Student Advantage executed the promotion.

"The trick to successful guerrilla marketing is starting with truly relevant ideas," says Michael Phelan, VP-corporate marketing and strategic partnerships for Student Advantage. "You can initiate a concept, but it won't take off unless it really clicks with kids, and that's where the challenge lies. You have to know the audience, and you have to be working with a product that's really worth their time, or the whole thing will bomb."

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