These new marketing tactics risk a consumer backlash

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At what point does the backlash come? It's a question marketers fear, and one they will surely have to confront in the next few years because of its economic consequences.

About a decade ago, Advertising Age used as its slogan the phrase "It's all about marketing." The line worked on two levels, defining both our editorial mission and the larger world in which we practiced our craft. The latter sentiment has never been as true as it is today. It's simply impossible to be cynical enough about marketing. Consider:

* Dozens of newspaper and magazine articles recently reported on the "emerging trend" of older women dating younger men-a cultural phenomenon essentially created by Miramax Film's marketing department to promote its film "Tadpole."

* The New York Times Magazine ran a cover story about music legend Clive Davis' attempt to construct a pop sensation from scratch using market research and calculated promotion. The plan apparently includes the creation of "fan" Web sites to generate buzz around a malleable young singer who doesn't write lyrics or play an instrument, and who is yet to release a single.

* Actor Mike Myers gave NBC's Katie Couric a cameo in the latest installment of "Austin Powers." It wasn't a sly cultural reference, but a bet she would plug her appearance in a segment on "Today" that would run much longer than the cameo and provide priceless publicity for the film. (She did.)

* Sony Ericsson Mobile Communications is sending actors around major U.S. cities posed as tourists. They ask people to take photos of them using a mobile phone that doubles as a digital camera and then begin talking up the device. "They are human spam," Bloomberg News columnist Matthew Lynn wrote in a recent opinion piece.

It's getting so absurd that "Today" did a five-minute segment (in which, full disclosure, I appeared) on the sophisticated marketing behind Bruce Springsteen's newest release. This despite the fact that the highlight of the album's launch plan was an endless series of "Today" segments that culminated in a live Springsteen "Today" performance.

The sheer volume of available examples is overwhelming, underscoring the degree to which public relations, product integration and other marketing disciplines are ballooning in importance at the expense of traditional media advertising. Rance Crain chronicled this development in his July 29 column when he wrote about Coca-Cola exec Steve Heyer's belief that the red couch on TV's "American Idol" is a more valuable marketing tool than a Coke commercial during the show. Similarly, Hershey Foods Corp. has said the showcase store it is building in New York's Times Square is a better investment than a national ad campaign.

An expanded toolbox gives marketers more options with which to reach consumers in a cluttered and fragmented marketplace. In some cases this inspires truly creative solutions. But it also poses a tremendous challenge as marketers stampede the boundaries of consumer tolerance. At what point does the consumer become so jaded that the messages lose effectiveness? In an era of corporate scandal-"the age of anti-trust" futurist Faith Popcorn calls it-there is the distinct possibility consumers will become so alert to manipulation that they will develop immunity to it. Worse, they could punish marketers who step over the line.

"At some point," Bloomberg columnist Lynn wrote, "everyone will get fed up." It's up to marketers to figure out where that saturation point is before they reach it, before "it's all about marketing" becomes a mantra of consumer discontent.

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