CLOSE-UP: LIVE ISSUE - STUNT ADVERTISING. Brands look to get ahead with unconventional ad channels

Jenny Watts asks whether marketing stunts translate into successful campaigns.

Students from around the country can't have believed their luck recently when they were told they could actually earn £88.20 a week for sitting around and having a pint at the student union.

But in a new wheeze from the creative marketing agency Cunning Stunts, students are set to earn the minimum wage for having a brand name tattooed, temporarily, on their foreheads. The tattoos will last for around one week and be worn by between 80 and 120 students in key cities.

After discussions with the National Union of Students, Cunning Stunts decided three hours was long enough per day for students to be seen out on brand ambassador duty, without detracting from their work.

On paper, it sounds a winning situation for all, so it hardly comes as a surprise that the interest from willing guinea pigs has already been huge.

And if recent examples are anything to go by, it should be good value for money. The medium has already brought in an estimated £200,000 of editorial coverage from around the globe, including items in The Wall Street Journal, El Mundo, Taipei Times, Moscow Times, Melbourne Radio and WGN Radio Chicago.

But, coverage aside, are these really effective marketing solutions?

For a start, what about the potentially negative effect for a company of having a spotty drunken teenager literally dragging its brand name through the mud on a boozy night out?

Anna Carloss, Cunning Stunts' managing director, says they've taken steps to avoid such a situation by creating a stringent selection process. "We are putting into place as many steps as possible to ensure we don't get people who could be a liability to the brand," she says.

The agency will visit each university to recruit a number of students, two of whom will be paid more to act as project managers and find the most responsible students. "That's as much as we can do," Carloss says.

To ensure the students keep their end of the bargain, they'll need to be photographed standing next to a dated newspaper. The students will also be briefed about the brand and its values, and so become talking billboards. But whether this will really work, and how long forehead advertising will last as a medium, is up for debate.

Will Collin, a founder of Naked, the agency behind Super Noodles' Vindaloo exploding toilet stunt, says: "The first person to do it will disproportionately gain standout. For every subsequent brand to use the medium, it'll be a 'me too'. It will become ridiculous after a while - you'll clearly be a follower, not a leader."

Richard Kilgarriff, the head of CNX, the youth pay-TV company that will be one of the first adopters of forehead ads, himself says it's "an interesting aside and experiment ... but we're certainly not putting all our money into it".

How far a gimmick like this can help in the wider brand-building process is debatable. But, coming from a relatively unknown base, CNX has got nothing to lose. Trialling such a medium among its target audience of extrovert young people is more appropriate for a brand in its early stages of evolution than an established brand with a broader target market. "I don't know how long it'll work, but while it's front of mind, we'll use whatever we can to get CNX out there," Kilgarriff says. He adds, however, that it is important for any potential adopters of stunts such as forehead advertising to apply the same rigorous approach to planning as they would use in other media.

The men's magazine FHM expressed an initial interest in forehead ads, and was a pioneer of the use of image projection with its Gail Porter/ Houses of Parliament stunt. However, Collin suggests that it is in FHM's interest to pursue a longer-term brand consolidation strategy, saying: "FHM has gone past the stage of notoriety for notoriety's sake."

An essential new dimension to every self-respecting media strategist's portfolio the forehead ad is not, but short-term stunts are nonetheless useful, and cheap, tools. One-off ads can be highly effective PR generators, such as Guinness' record-setting ad fixed to a bee's knee in 2000 to promote the launch of the guinnessworldrecords.com website.

But for such stunts to be really effective, they have to be part of a bigger strategic picture. Last year's Mini campaign, which saw the cars parked on billboards and hanging off cranes, was a good extension of WCRS's creative idea, the car saving the world. Nestle's Polo advertising on bus hubcabs was part of a wide-ranging relaunch of the brand last year through J. Walter Thompson. Marco Rimini, JWT's director of strategy, says: "You can't build a brand by stunts alone, although it's a good way of bringing a product to someone's attention."

Similarly, advertisers get it right when the stunt communicates with consumers at the appropriate time. Vaseline deodorant's summertime sponsorship of hanging tube straps on the London Underground conveyed understanding and humour to travellers surrounded by unpleasant body odours.

But while such stunts are able to raise a smile and even wake up a drowsy, perhaps jaded commuter, they are very small scale. Reaching relatively small numbers of consumers, Collin reckons stunts like this can end up going either of two ways. "Either it becomes an established medium or a one-hit wonder whose novelty palls," he says.

Rimini warns: "You can measure the short term but it's harder to quantify the long-term effect."

No-one doubts that for a bit of fun and attitudinal communication, stunts like this are obviously attractive. Their ability to generate vast amounts of column inches often makes them appear more significant than they really are, even to the trained eye. And because they don't cost much, and despite the fact that it is often impossible to measure their effectiveness (or otherwise) one-off gimmicky ads will continue to proliferate.

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