I Long for a Good Publicity Stunt

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According to Marketing Vox, the Word of Mouth Marketing Association (WOMMA) on Thursday released the WOMMA Ethics Assessment Tool, which helps marketers identify and eliminate unethical word-of-mouth marketing tactics before they are implemented.

I don’t know about you but I think the conversation about policing unethical word of mouth has gone overboard. Who’s to say what’s unethical when it comes to this form of marketing but the end consumer. If the end consumer thinks some actress on YouTube pretending to be a lonely high school teenager in order to garner fame is entertaining and authentic, then it is.

If a PR agency wants to pay bloggers to create “Working Families for Wal-Mart” as a publicity stunt, (web 2.0 lingo is astroturfing) well, maybe it works, maybe it doesn’t. I’m not saying that I’m for anything that is unethical in any way. I’m just saying that I think all of this call for some sort of absolute authenticity and transparency is being driven by people who seem to have a hold on the higher ground and at best it’s killing creativity.

Years and years of what were once called publicity stunts have fooled innocent participants, fueled careers and sold millions of dollars of product. Innocently and without anyone getting hurt – even with no organization looking out for them.

Marketers have always done goofy things. Some work, some don’t, some are incredibly authentic, some are corny. In the end, the consumer gets to decide what’s art and what’s a stunt.

In the mean time go out and find your Dr. Livingston – and blog about it everyday. Don’t let “ethics assessment tools” and the self appointed blog community sap your creativity. The market will let you know when you’ve crossed the line.


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  1. Steve, great example, and I like the phrase “authentic publicity stunt.” When Branson does something outrageous to attract attention, he’s completely in the open about (a) who’s doing it (he is!) and (b) why. There’s no hidden agenda, just a master publicity hound at work.

    I saw a presentation on Audi’s “Art of the Heist” promotion a few months ago. Their ad agency folks ( http://www.mckinney-silver.com/ ) talked about how they built this complex, multimedia game around a fictional car theft. They used web sites, blogs and more to follow the story line of what was actually a contest to find the “stolen” car. If you just glanced at it, you might think they were flogging, but if you looked closely, *every* web site and blog clearly identified the promotion and sponsor at the bottom of the page. The audience could see that it was a game, paid for by Audi.

    That’s the difference. Color outside the lines, be edgy, do whatever you want. Just be transparent (there’s that word again) about who’s paying for it and whether the participants are people or characters. When agency employees write and a company pays for a blog that doesn’t disclose its relationship with the sponsor, that’s when people get exercised about ethics.

  2. Very few can do an authentic publicity stunt like Richard Branson. Who else would launch their mobile services, by going into a competitors branch and super soak the staff?

    He is the king of authentic publicity stunts!

  3. John,

    I think the idea with the “tool” is to help those people that work at PR agencies and who have absolutely no morals figure out what’s a bad idea before they launch it into the public, forever damaging themselves, the brands they represent, and further confusing the rest of the world about what’s ethical and what’s not.

    Actually, I agree with you too, but can definitely see a change in the youngsters coming up in the ranks, in that more and more of them have absoltely no idea when something goes too far… I blame that more on our society’s loosening of ethcis and morals than on anything else.

    If there’s a tool that’ll help us follow the guidelines that WOMMA has established, and we need that help, I’m glad it’s there.

  4. I guess I didn’t mean to pick on WOMMA, I think they are, as John points out, filling a void that obviously needs some filling.

    My point was more of a reaction to the “outrage” from folks.

    Nathan, great clarification, thanks for the thoughtful comment. I was not defending either by the way – my point was more about encouraging people to at least consider doing some edgy creative things without constantly looking over your shoulder for the rath of the blog posse.

  5. I’m confused. Are you defending the flog(s) or the front group? “Astroturf” significantly predates web 2.0. It’s a term for fake grass-roots efforts (such as creating a front group that hides its affiliation with the supported cause/party/company). Creating front groups is listed as an example of an ethics violation by the PRSA. It’s not just a WOMMA thing.

    http://prsa.org/_About/ethics/disclosure.asp?ident=eth5

    The WM across America flog wasn’t the company’s first attempt; they’ve done this before. And WFWM isn’t a publicity stunt, it’s an advocacy group, apparently funded by Wal-Mart and organized by Edelman. This is politics, and it’s important to know who’s talking when they make statements in support of the company.

    Besides, most of the heat has bypassed Wal-Mart and gone straight to Edelman, where they *wrote* the WOMMA ethics code (ok, they helped). Set yourself up as a leader, and people will have high expectations of your behavior.

    Most companies don’t have the same exposure as the world’s largest retailer or a leading voice in social media and PR. If you still want to get attention with a stunt, knock yourself out. Just try not to offend the blogging natives too much, and don’t drop turkeys from a helicopter.

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