In their pursuit of a hip youth market, clients are starting to adopt
subversive media strategies. Damian Lanigan reports on the new marketing
terrorists and asks, how far can they go?
Advertisers are engaged in a constant struggle to hijack the attention
of apathetic consumers, yet some of the groups whose awareness is most
valued are the least keen to offer it.
Youth audiences in particular have become advertising literate to the
point of cynicism and are increasingly resistant to conventional
marketing glossiness. To make them take notice, some major advertisers
are supplementing their conventional advertising plans with ‘guerrilla
media’ tactics to lend grit and currency to their brands. If such
activity takes them outside the law, then that is a risk worth taking.
Traditionally, guerrilla tactics have been synonymous with flyposting,
and the music business in particular has been a heavy user of this
medium for decades. Guerrilla media, however, are moving on. The term
now refers to any number of activities undertaken outside the
conventional paid-for communications channels, and they derive their
power from flouting the constraints of conventional methods.
The Tango man’s luminous presence on London’s College Green during last
year’s Tory leadership campaign was a classic legal example of guerrilla
tactics. Emma Jenks works for Howell Henry Chaldecott and Lury’s
Environment Marketing Group, which specialises in ‘non-paid-for’ media,
and helped devise the stunt. ‘Guerrilla media is just another term for
new media. The intention is to hijack existing media events for the
benefit of your brand,’ she argues. ‘It’s a crowded world. We are
reaching saturation in the conventional media. You have to take steps to
‘It’s all about generating PR for a brand usually to increase the effect
ofÿ20a limited budget,’ Katherine Almond, a board level media planner at
Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO, adds. She cites the example of Kiss FM’s
launch, where a flatbed truck was chartered to drive around London
filled with people dancing live to highlights of Kiss’s launch playlist.
Inevitably, the truck suffered a temporary breakdown outside Capital
Radio’s HQ on the Euston Road.
The commercial effect of stunts like these is easy to guess, and
nowadays most consumer launches are accompanied by similar types of
event. But the increasing acceptance of PR gimmicks won’t tempt Almond
to put more legally dubious methods on to her clients’ media plans.
‘You don’t have to break the law to do guerrilla media well. I think it
is irresponsible to suggest to clients that they resort to illegal
activities such as flyposting or sabotage,’ she says.
Others are less fastidious. If you were in London’s West End recently,
there is a good chance that you saw metre-long speech bubbles containing
the words ‘Blah Blah Blah’ pasted over prime poster sites. The satellite
channel, MTV, was about to launch a music magazine called Blah Blah
Blah, and had been flyposting extensively to announce the fact. It is
understandable that flyposting, the accepted medium of the music
business, would be appropriate for the launch. But the speech bubble
campaign amounted to criminal damage. Why did MTV take the risk?
Michelle Poole, the UK marketing manager of Blah Blah Blah, argues:
‘It’s all really good fun, and done very tongue in cheek. One of the
things we’ve done is hang the speech bubbles from tannoys at Victoria
station, which we did in conjunction with Railtrack and Maiden. The
whole campaign is designed to tease and to reflect the edginess of the
What about the edginess of advertisers and contractors who had their
sites defaced? ‘Yes, we have had comeback from advertisers, and removed
the stickers as soon as we were asked,’ Poole says. ‘I don’t want to
sound patronising but I think the speech bubbles can actually help
advertisers by drawing attention to otherwise unremarkable ads.’
Another recent example of sabotage involved the tactical spray painting
of the M&C Saatchi ‘anti-Northerners’ poster campaign for Courage Best.
The graffiti was unbranded and made to appear the work of the local
spray-can-happy wag, but the organised nature of the escapade was
betrayed by the widespread nature of the defaced sites and the
recurrence of certain lines.
For example, one poster with the headline, ‘If the North’s so great how
come the Queen doesn’t live there?’, was regularly enhanced with the
rejoinder, ‘Because she doesn’t drink beer.’
While it’s relatively easy to think of a number of Northern brewers who
might have had a vested interest in such activity, nobody’s saying
anything. Boddingtons’ media agency, Motive, states emphatically: ‘We
don’t know anything at all about that.’
One of the aspects of guerrilla activity is that it is so ephemeral and
elusive it can allow advertisers to derive benefit without having to
Several Mills and Allen sites were targeted in the Blah Blah Blah
campaign. David Pugh, M&A’s marketing director, says: ‘To use the phrase
‘guerrilla marketing’ is to dignify unlawful activity with a management
name-tag. We take a very serious view of this recent activity. The costs
to us are considerable. MTV has sent us a grovelling apology and we will
send it a bill for the costs incurred. I find it surprising to see some
of the people who get involved in this type of thing. Some very strange
decisions are being made in marketing departments.’
Good old flyposting is a medium with a future for mainstream
advertisers, according to Nigel Dalley, of the guerrilla media
specialist, Trinity Street. ‘Conventional advertisers are getting
involved. It’s all about getting to be in the places where the kids
are,’ he argues. ‘Flyposting is the only medium that can reach the
really bad kids, the ones who hang around bricked-up toilets on Barnsley
Dalley even goes as far as to suggest that flyposting performs some
valuable social function for these ‘khazi kids’. ‘They don’t read, they
don’t even watch much telly. They use the flyposting sites as sources of
information about what their favourite bands are up to. It’s the only
way to get to them.’
Perhaps as a consequence, major advertisers who want to target younger
audiences have turned to this once-anarchic medium - Boddingtons, Sol,
the Children’s Channel and Coca-Cola’s Fruitopia have all been spotted
on the boarded-up shops and flyovers that are prime flyposting sites.
The activity has become so mainstream that some already feel a need to
go deeper into guerrilla territory.
Chas Bayfield, a creative at Howell Henry, notes: ‘It’s a bit crass now
- the first thought if you’ve got a youth brand is ‘let’s do some
flyposting’. The aim has to be to hijack attention, but you have to do
it out of context.
‘It’s very hard to be more dramatic than a drama programme, for example.
When Tango sponsored The Word, Howell Henry went the other way. Instead
of trying to be kitsch and disgusting like the programme, we went for
stuff that was cute, warm and friendly.’
Bayfield cites some further examples of going beyond flyposting to
create the guerrilla effect: ‘To relaunch Still Tango we did a strategic
litter dump of Still Tango bottles at music festivals to get people
talking. We’ve even covered a van in orange fur. It’s about trying new
Jenks points out: ‘Guerrilla ideas have to be relevant to the brand.
Stunts and surprise are an integral part of what Tango’s about so it
works for us.’
Andy Macintosh, a media planner at Abbott Mead, looks at the
appropriateness issue from a different perspective. ‘I noticed a poster
for the band, Goldie, on a Mills and Allen poster site the other day,
and to my mind it worked against the message - a slightly left-field
band seemed out of place on a conventional site. It would have been much
Dalley develops this point: ‘It’s important for the flyposting business
to keep the real mainstream stuff out. As soon as you get organisations
like the banks involved, the medium loses all its credibility. At
present, the music business accounts for 90 per cent of turnover. The
medium must retain cachet with this user. The growth among conventional
advertisers must be carefully managed.’
The growing prominence of guerrilla activities, and the increasing
amounts of money involved, has resulted in a greater professionalism.
Tom (not his real name) has been involved in the flyposting game for 20
years, and runs a team of ten ‘operatives’ in and around the London
area. He fondly remembers a time when everything was simpler: ‘In the
old days it was more of a laugh. Stick your posters up, cash in hand,
easy as that. Now it’s all campaign strategy, get the posters up at the
right time in the right place, monitoring sites. It’s got a lot more
Tom and his team work from 4am until mid-morning, hours which allow them
to avoid traffic rather than to avoid trouble. ‘That early is the only
time you can get round to all the sites,’ he explains. ‘We never get any
hassle. The Socialist Workers are the only people who really piss us
off, because they stick their stuff up anywhere.’
Tom’s choice of sites obeys a rather subtle code of propriety. For
example, illegal 48-sheet sites are OK whereas boarded-up buildings
awaiting refurbishment are not. On the illegal 48-sheet issue, Tom
estimates that as many as 30 per cent of all sites in London are illegal
and that makes them fair game. ‘They leave us alone,’ he adds.
The undisputed champion of generating PR coverage out of nothing has to
be the Monster Raving Loony Party. With experience of mainstream
marketing from its tactical rebranding as the Official Monster Munch
Raving Loony Party for Walkers at the Perth and Kinross by-election in
May 1995, it has advice to offer the UK marketing industry in its
relentless pursuit of exposure.
Alan Hope, Monster Raving’s chairman and deputy leader, explains:
‘These people seem to be taking themselves too seriously. We’re the
biggest piss-take in the world, that’s why we’re successful.’ ‘Take the
piss.’ Could this be the next marketing buzzword? It’s certainly got
more of a ring to it than ‘think global, act local’.
THE LEGAL ISSUES
Flyposting is a civil rather than a criminal offence. In practice it is
very difficult and time-consuming to prosecute someone for flyposting,
and it almost never happens. Once the local council has determined who
is responsible (not at all easy), that party has to be notified of the
precise address of the offending site and is then requested to take the
poster down. If the poster is still visible 48 hours later, a fine can
be levied. One way of making a poster invisible, of course, is to paste
over it with a new one.
Sabotaging other companies’ poster sites potentially carries the
criminal charge of criminal damage. There is no history of prosecutions
taking place in this area, partly due to the difficulty of gaining
evidence, partly because the effects of this type of sabotage are short
term and easily reversible. There is also the potential damage to an
advertiser’s image if it is seen to be heavy-handed with hip,
Marginal tactics such as littering and stickering are difficult to
classify. It is possible to secure permission from the relevant property
owner or local council to legitimise such activities. Again, if the
effects are easily reversible, and the responsibility for the clean-up
is taken by the ‘guerrilla’, there is unlikely to be any follow-up.