SpongeBob SquareThefts: yellow and porous and suspect are they

Material World

February 20, 2005|By John Jurgensen | John Jurgensen,HARTFORD COURANT

It was around Thanksgiving last year when SpongeBobs started disappearing.

In a rash of mischief that spread across more than a dozen states and made headlines, thieves made off with about 100 9-foot inflated dolls that had been on the roofs of Burger King restaurants to promote The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie.

But when Burger King Corp. offered a year's supply of "burger bucks" as a reward for missing inflatables and set up a hot line for tips on the "Spongenappings," some people got suspicious: Did the burger chain itself pull off the caper?

On the Internet, students of unorthodox marketing debated the evidence. Had a smattering of staged SpongeBob heists inspired copycats around the country, triggering a chain reaction of offbeat publicity?

Forgive these skeptics for suspecting a hoax. But so many guerrilla tactics have emerged since the traditional 30-second TV commercial started losing its clout that the American consumer should no longer take for granted that things are what they seem.

Advertisements may seem obvious during events like the recent Super Bowl, the year's most important showcase for big-budget commercials. But under the surface of even that annual ad extravaganza is an industry trying to reinvent itself in hopes of reaching increasingly fragmented and indifferent potential customers.

Because of technology such as digital TV recorders like TiVo and the blooming array of choices offered by cable television, satellite radio and the Internet, "the game has changed for marketers, and they're no longer in control of the media and their marketing message," says Jonathan Carson, president of BuzzMetrics, a New York Web research firm.

In the days after the recent Super Bowl, BuzzMetrics used special software to comb online blogs and discussion boards, measuring chatter about the ads that aired. By listening in on these virtual conversations, Carson says, BuzzMetrics can help its clients understand what the de facto arbiters of the Internet want from their brands.

"We're sitting in on the world's largest unprompted focus group," Carson says.

Unsurprisingly, it consists largely of young people who take many of their purchasing cues from the Internet.

Blurring the lines

But to influence this diverse and savvy demographic group rather than simply react to its whims requires some real voodoo. Many ad agencies are trying to work that magic on the Web by blurring the line between fact and fiction.

Last year, for example, an apparent whistleblower calling himself Beta-7 tried to convince visitors to his blog that playing a certain Sega video game caused blackouts and violent behavior. Over four months of suburban cloak-and-dagger, Beta-7 leaked video, voice-mail and documents to expose the "cover-up." The real secret, of course, was that Sega itself was behind the blog.

Beta-7 was judged to be a wildly successful "viral" campaign, so-called because it spread organically across the Web.

Brands are pushing the edge on television, too, by moving past mere product placement to insinuate themselves into program content.

Volkswagen recently signed a $200 million deal with NBC Universal guaranteeing that VWs will be worked into future programs on the network and its cable siblings. Such partnerships are usually obvious, as on The Apprentice 2, in which Donald Trump's winning team created a toy that will be sold by Mattel.

But is there a difference between product placement that's purchased and the kind that comes free?

In 2004, Cadillac was the No. 1 brand in the Billboard Top 20 Singles chart, racking up 70 lyrical mentions in various hip-hop songs, according to American Brandstand, a monitoring project of Agenda Inc., a San Francisco consulting firm. While it's rare that rappers sign contracts to sprinkle brand names into their rhymes, doing so would not likely upset consumers of the music, says Lucian James, president of Agenda Inc.

"Generation Y doesn't have the same worries that older generations have" about ads infiltrating artistic and social spaces, James says.

Peer pressure

Maybe that ambivalence explains why young people have become an important channel for the trendiest strategy: word-of-mouth or buzz marketing.

Through Web sites, such as the one run by Boston's BzzAgent, young recruits receive the latest products that BzzAgent's clients have to offer - from cosmetics to coffee makers - in exchange for showing them off to friends and filing reports on their interactions. The hope is that peer pressure will build a product's popularity from the ground up.

Yet the risk of backlash is real, says B.J. Bueno, a marketing consultant and author of The Power of Cult Branding.

"They're commercializing something humans do naturally, and to me it's sacrilegious," says Bueno. "The minute you know someone is working for someone else, their credibility goes to hell."

This issue of trust is everywhere, including the recent controversy that engulfed political commentators and columnists who admitted they had been paid for endorsements. In this case, however, the products being pitched were White House initiatives.

Given such an atmosphere of suspicion, it's easy to understand why people might ask if Burger King was behind the stolen SpongeBobs. The answer, says Alison Russell, communications director for Burger King Corp., is no.

The publicity payoff of such a stunt would not have justified the potential risks to the Burger King brand, Russell says.

"You've got your legal reasons and you have your relationship with your customers, and you can't tinker around with that."

The Hartford Courant is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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