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Undercover marketing – why do it and the risks of doing it

undercover marketing

I remember the last time I was in Gothenburg, I walked past a man who was holding a sign that said all you can eat pizza. I was looking at the man, and I was looking at the sign. I know what you’re thinking, but I didn’t end up going to the all you can eat pizza.

Looking at this man with the sign in his hand, I started thinking about undercover marketing and the movie The Joneses, a very interesting movie about marketing. Well, this man and his sign was more or less the opposite of undercover marketing, he was telling the world who he was working for and what he was marketing.

Once in a while, you don’t realize that you’ve been marketed to, people have named it buzz marketing, stealth marketing, and roach baiting, but I like to use the name undercover marketing. And, businesses are using it, probably more often than most people realize.

One of the most obvious examples, are when celebrities get free clothes or free products that they are using to get other “ordinary” people to start buying them. The same goes for product placement in movies. The reason it’s undercover marketing, is that it doesn’t say anywhere that we’re actually looking at any type of promotion. I remember the Junior Mint episode in Seinfeld, and when Sylvester Stallone took a $500,000 payment from one tobacco company to smoke their brand in three of his films.

But, bloggers receiving free products, are also part of undercover marketing, that is, if they are promoting the products without telling their readers that they received the products for free.

Why undercover marketing is working

The reason why undercover marketing works is that people tend to trust it more than if they know that it’s an advertisement that a company has paid for. And, it’s a lot easier to create a buzz with a marketing campaign that people don’t know is a marketing campaign. One great example is when RayBan launched their viral marketing campaign on YouTube called Sunglass Catch. Right now, it has more than 5.2 million views, and I bet that the number would have been much lower if people had known that it was a paid marketing campaign by RayBan. Here’s the video and a great buzz marketing example:

The risk of undercover marketing

The most obvious risk for an undercover marketing campaign is failing to keep the campaign hidden. If people feel, or understand that they are being manipulated into liking the product, they might become angry at the product and/or at the company. This way, especially with the speed of communication in social media, a failed undercover marketing campaign might hurt a company really bad.

10 responses to “Undercover marketing – why do it and the risks of doing it”

  1. robert says:

    If we are always afraid of risks we will never achieve anything.Take the risk in order to catch success.

  2. nabil says:

    This is a great post i reall enjoy reading it.Thank you for sharing.It is interesting and important.

  3. I love how this article is all about the concept of “undercover marketing” while you are simultaneously and indirectly applying it to this very article yourself! By Tweeting about this article, you got me to click on its link-therefore, catching my interest and attention… and although I knew exactly what the purpose of your posting this article was initially, I went along with the “ploy” anyhow-enabling both you AND I to get what we want out of it. So, you were able to get me to want to share your article on 3 social networks, had me interested enough to read almost the entire article in the first place, and write a comment on top of it. Now that’s good marketing 101 to teach this generation of entry level professionals!

  4. Emily says:

    Hi Jens,
    This is the first time I’ve ever heard about undercover marketing, which prompted me to click on the article and read it. I agree with you, most people tend to buy and use products when their favorite celebrities showcase them on TV. It is kinda surprising that some of these customers do not know that those products are used and endorsed by celebs mainly because they got paid to do it (and they also got a 1-year supply of those products for free). I, for one, when I was in my teens, thought that my favorite actress was using a great shampoo product on a commercial I saw on TV. When I asked my mom to buy it for me, I told her it’s because I want to use it because my fave actress uses it too. When I got and used the product, it gave me dandruff. My first teenage dandruff! That’s the time my big sister told me about the commercial, that it’s just a publicity stunt of the shampoo company to get people to buy their product, even if it’s not a good product for everyone.

    I agree with you as well on the risk of undercover marketing. While the benefits may be truly good, the risk may make the potential clients/customers to be “dodgy” when it comes to the product and to the company.

  5. RuthAnn says:

    Loving the post! We implement “undercover” marketing for several of our clients and you are dead on with the pitfalls of a campaign being outed. The Joneses is the epitome of suggestive marketing and certainly glamorizes the process, your average business does not go to that elaborate of extremes (no $100k sports car placements for sure) but many do use a variation on a smaller scale…and are a lot more common then many consumers realize. The next time your on YouTube and come across a YouTube “Star” showing a tutorial on makeup application or a new trend in hair styling, pay close attention to the lighting and the if the sound is a little too clear, especially for a bedroom/bathroom setting…chances are very good they are a “sponsored” suggestive marketing spokesperson…earning a living by executing “undercover marketing”.

  6. Undercover marketing is not good . this can break down the economy of each country in this world. we need to think about that so much time. because we as reader . we have the authority to gives our opinion about any topic. so thanks for sharing.

  7. Khaja Moin says:

    Agree Jens, Under cover marketing really works. What about giveaways which type of marketing it comes under?
    Eager to know.


  8. James says:

    It was really impressive published article. I do personally learn in the post and also I will share it to my friends later after reviewing. Really interesting post indeed. Thanks.

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