It is five years since FHM flashed an image of a naked Gail Porter onto the Houses of Parliament in London - a one-off that was reported in almost every national newspaper. Since the success of that event, unusual street campaigns have become a key tool for brands eager to promote their originality.
Such edgy activities, however, carry the risk of upsetting local authorities.
With the explosion of interest in experiential campaigns, field marketing agencies are having to tread carefully to avoid causing annoyance.
Guerrilla marketers now risk being prosecuted under the same laws as political campaigners seeking publicity. David Chick's 'Spider-Man' protest atop a 100ft crane last year put Fathers4Justice in the spotlight, but it also brought central London to a standstill, cost about £10,000 a day in policing and led to Chick being prosecuted for causing a public nuisance.
Elsewhere, Westminster and Camden councils recently cracked down on flyposting, complaining that it was unsightly and expensive to clean up. They are now threatening to seek court injunctions against flyposters, which, if breached, would lead to unlimited fines and imprisonment. Leafleting, meanwhile, has been banned in cities including Liverpool and Newcastle.
And authorities such as Bradford reportedly frown on any kind of street marketing.
Restrictions on flyposters and leafleting do not worry most field marketers, who tend to regard these activities as their industry's equivalent of junk mail. But these agencies are now finding that authorisation is essential for most kinds of sampling, demonstration and street theatre activity, especially campaigns involving complex or heavy equipment that ties them to a particular location. 'You have to have approval, because if someone tells you to go away, you are stuck,' says Alison Williams, chairman of the Field Marketing Council and FDS Group. As a rule, she believes that the longer marketers interact with consumers in a single place, the greater the need for permission, particularly where there is an entertainment element.
Upsetting one's competitors is fine, as long as it can be done without risking an awkward comeback. Ericsson pulled off a neat coup at the Stella Artois Tennis Championships when it handed out branded umbrellas to queuing spectators. When it rained, the crowd opened the umbrellas in front of TV cameras, to the chagrin of the sponsor, a rival mobile phone brand.
But annoying the city authorities is another matter entirely. 'There is huge potential to fall foul of them, and one always has to be careful,' says Richard Finch, sales and marketing director at the Blue Water Agency.
He recalls a council objecting when staff wearing rollerblades handed out samples of Nivea's Aroma Spritz. It turned out that the sales promotion firm responsible for obtaining authorisation had made a mistake. Since then, Blue Water has made its own arrangements.
Most field marketing agencies are keen to avoid trouble and seek the required permits. Many cultivate the right people at town and city halls, and some have a specialist division to keep a constant check on regulations in different parts of the country. 'It's all very well making your campaign exciting and different,' says Hugh Robertson, a partner at agency RPM.
'But if it risks being closed down by the council, the client may not get return on investment.'
For their part, local authorities are by no means unreceptive to street marketing. 'Most of them are quite prepared to let you do it if they know you are not going to make a big mess,' says Scott Goodson, chief executive of StrawberryFrog.
Indeed, some councils are actively cashing in on the demand for experiential campaigns, charging as much as £1500 for prime locations. 'In an ideal world they would probably like us to go away, but they know there is a big demand for our business,' observes Chris Dawson, director at Link Communication. 'If you pitch your activity to them in good time, it's usually fine.'
Link is organising four times as much of this kind of street activity as it did last year. It recently carried out a campaign for Travelocity promoting flights to Norway that involved a busker strumming to a recorded tape and being interviewed by fake journalists for winning an air guitar contest in Oslo. The activity toured London, Glasgow and Edinburgh, with permission required in each. 'The councils' main stipulation was that the busker was not to solicit money, so if anyone did drop coins we had to give them back,' says Dawson.
Cunning, the company that organised FHM's Gail Porter projection, acknowledges that the climate has changed in the past few years. 'When we did the FHM work, the police thought it was funny and just told us not to be too long,' recalls group account director Mel Wakely. 'It would be very different now.' The agency has turned its back on such tactics and now sticks to the rules. 'Councils know that whatever we do, we have thought it through in terms of the execution,' says Wakely.
Some companies continue to use unauthorised campaigns, though, especially if instant press publicity is the main objective. During the 2002 World Cup, Madame Tussauds took illicit advantage of the empty plinth in Trafalgar Square to erect a waxwork of David Beckham. The statue went up at 6.30am and came down just two hours later, when wardens for the Greater London Authority arrived. But by then the cameras had done their work, leading to front-page publicity in the next morning's tabloids. 'There was no point asking for permission, as it probably wouldn't have been given, and we would have lost a good opportunity,' explains marketing co-ordinator Michael Birch.
Similarly, Emap promoted its One Nation broadcast branding to advertising agencies last year by setting up a giant number one outside their doorsteps.
The digit was made to look as though it had fallen from the sky. It was cordoned off, with fake photographers taking pictures and fake scientists carrying out tests. The scene was created overnight, without authorisation from the city authorities, and was gone by mid-morning, having achieved its purpose. 'It did a really good job of raising awareness quickly, and we got a lot of press coverage from it,' says head of broadcast marketing Sam Fosbury.
Mark Evans, managing director of Kommando, the agency that carried out the Emap activity, prefers the spontaneity of unauthorised campaigns.
'Anything you have to get permission for ends up being very static,' he argues. 'You are designated an area that may not fit your target or strategy.
Also, you are forced into areas that lots of other brands are using. That often means you are just another piece of theatre happening in the same place and can make no real connection.'
Agencies can sometimes get away with bending the rules, as long as council wardens are given the name and number of a senior executive to contact in the case of a problem. 'You have to play ball with them and have respect for what they are doing,' says Evans. Another golden rule, he adds, is to clear up thoroughly afterwards.
Where complex sets are involved, brands have little choice but to seek permission. For the launch of the Mitsubishi Colt earlier this year, StrawberryFrog designed mobile aquariums with a car inside, reflecting the model's creative work, and placed them in the busy centres of London and other European cities. This required detailed co-ordination with city authorities, but was worth the extra effort, according to Chaya Chatterjee, head of marketing at Mistubishi Motors Europe. 'The campaign took almost six months to produce and weeks of preparatory planning, but drew a lot of attention,' she says.
Anything that involves cars on the road needs particular care. Disaster could ensue if motorists are distracted by an unusual street event, so campaigns need to be kept well away from busy main roads. But parking issues can usually be dealt with if agencies behave in a conciliatory fashion. A campaign carried out by RPM for Mini Cheddars involved fake repair sites on pavements, with fake workmen surprising pedestrians by handing out samples. There was potential for unwelcome attention from traffic wardens, but any awkwardness was overcome by chatting to them and giving them some free gifts.
Street marketing is in little danger of being outlawed if agencies observe the rules, which in most cases are not especially restrictive. Far from being authoritarian killjoys, most councils seem content to let marketers express their creativity. 'It's about trust,' says StrawberryFrog's Goodson. 'As long as we convince them we are not going to cause them or the public any trouble, they don't mind too much what we do.'
CASE STUDY - BRITVIC
In a street campaign by Cunning for Britvic's Tango Apple last year, staff invited 25 children at a time to stand under a giant roulette wheel.
When the wheel stopped, the 'winner' was drenched with water. Later the children were invited to take part in a water fight, and PlayStations, games and CDs were given away.
Cunning had to be careful to stick to the rules. The campaign ran in 12 major shopping areas set aside for experiential marketing activities by local authorities. All the promotional staff had to be vetted to ensure they had no police records and were used to working with children. The original idea had been for real Tango to be used in the roulette wheel, but health and safety regulations decreed the use of non-fizzy, uncoloured water. For the water fight, the children had to be dressed in protective clothing, with safe places to put mobile phones and valuables.
For a street campaign promoting Tango Ice-Blast, a carbonated frozen drink, Cunning proposed the staging of snow fights using real snow. These were vetoed by local authorities on the grounds that they would damage the flagstones in prestigious shopping areas. The agency got around this by getting the authorities to suggest alternative sites.
- Street entertainment requires a licence. Penalty: fines of up to £1000.
- Unauthorised display of flyers or light projections is banned. Penalty: fines of up to £1000.
- Distributors must obtain permission before handing out leaflets. Penalty: confiscation of materials and fines of up to £500.
- Painting or fixing signs requires the consent of the local authority. Penalty: fines of up to £2500.
- Blocking or obstructing a highway needs permission. Police co-operation may also be necessary.
- Permission is required to pitch a booth, stall or stand in a public place.
- Those who ignore an order to move on are liable to have their vehicles and property confiscated, and be arrested for trespass.
- Companies are liable for any damage to property.
- Activities deemed to have caused personal injury can lead to costly court claims.