OUTDOOR/AMBIENT: THE ADVERTISERS - What do Superman, a semi-naked woman and a dwarf have in common? They've all been used as media. Meg Carter reports on the oldest, most mobile medium of them all

Only one thing's worse than being talked about, and that's not

being talked about. Oscar Wilde's words ring truer today than ever for

brands eager not only to get noticed but trusted, too. Word of mouth has

moved centre stage as consumers grow increasingly wary of corporate

speak. And tactics are getting subtler to encourage members of the

public to talk about a brand.



One approach growing in popularity is the use of brand ambassadors,

often "resting" actors, who by wearing, using or otherwise interacting

with a product in public become, in effect, a mobile outdoor medium for

a brand. True, there's nothing new about promotional stunts. But such

live events - variously referred to by exponents as "face to facers",

"happenings" or "adverteasers" - have become the flavour of the day.



Tactics range markedly in sophistication. Earlier this year, the

relaunch of Imperial Leather's range was marked by Gaby Yorath sitting

in a tub of lather in Trafalgar Square. Last year's launch work for

Imperial FoamBurst, meanwhile, included models covered in foam

"showering" in selected public phone boxes.



Hicklin Slade arranged for tai chi presentations in Soho Square to get

people talking about the Britvic soft drink Purdeys. Leo Burnett and

Starcom Motive, meanwhile, went further when they hired a man to eat a

Heinz Salad Cream poster on the Cromwell Road. Luckily, the poster was

made of a specially commissioned edible substance; unluckily (for the

poster eater, at least), it took him two weeks to complete the task.



At the other end of the spectrum, however, are subtler ploys where

branded messages or products are placed in public spaces for consumers

to find.



The master in this most subtle of ambient arts must be the New

York-based marketing agency Big Fat Inc, which employs actors to stage

product skits in locations such as trendy bars or on public transport.

These involve actors discussing a product within earshot of bystanders;

the twist is no-one knows the seemingly casual conversations are, in

fact, scripted testimonials.



Despite the apparent growth in interest in such tactics, not everyone is

agreed on their effect - or their impact on brand communication.



"Our offices overlook Oxford Street where, it seems, it has become valid

to pay people to dress up as some loon or other and parade around once

or even twice a week; I saw three Supermen this morning," Hicklin

Slade's creative partner, Philip Slade, says. "Whether this sort of

activity generates much more than a funny photo opportunity, however, is

questionable."



Slade believes that involving members of the public in any activity is

key. For its launch of the Carbon drink last year, Hicklin Slade hired

three actors to tour trendy bars promoting the brand. The unlikely

threesome - a dwarf, an eastern European ingenue and her driver -

promoted sampling by approaching consumers out for a drink and staging

skits.



"It was an extension of street theatre although punters didn't know it

was all from a script," he says. "Getting someone to represent brand

values is the trickiest bit. Get a brand ambassador right, however, and

it can be a fantastically valuable exercise. The people we recruited to

do these activities were chosen to embody the brand; fitness experts

rather than promotional professionals."



Getting the right "happening" for the brand is also key, says Gavin

Reeder, a planner/buyer at Starcom Motive, which worked on the Heinz

Salad Cream campaign. He believes that all too often stunts don't offer

sufficient scope to fit in with a product's broader brand strategy. The

poster-eating plot for Heinz Salad Cream, however, was an exception.



"It's rare for a stunt to be so on line with a brand strategy, but it

was timed to coincide with the relaunch and campaign line that 'any food

tastes supreme with Heinz Salad Cream'," Reeder comments. "Get the right

fit (between stunt and brand) and it can be one of the best ways of

getting people to talk about your brand."



But is it as effective a way of communicating a brand message? Yes,

according to Anna Carloss of Cunning Stunts. "It's far more viral than

it is about grabbing headlines," she believes. "It's about generating

word of mouth. Personal recommendation for a brand or product is the

strongest recommendation that a brand or product can get."



One tactic employed by Cunning Stunts for BMW's revamped Mini included

packs of holiday photos left lying around in bars which looked like they

had been left behind by other customers. Following this, good-looking

people walked up to strangers in pubs and gave them a handwritten

message with an 0800 phone number - under the pretence of fancying them.

When unsuspecting consumers rang the number, Mini had an attentive

audience.



Richard Lamballe, the account director at the HHCL & Partners outfit

Environmental Marketing, has some reservations about this approach,

however.



Paying actors to hang out in bars, using or discussing a product, is too

underhand for his taste. "It's hardly the most ethical approach," he

believes.



Environmental Marketing recently created what it likes to call

"person-to-person" activities for the ITV shows Popstars and Survivor.

For the former it hired people to sing badly in public places and

reinforce the show's promotional strapline: "Nigel, pick me."



There are two ways to use this sort of live communications, Lamballe

believes. "You either do it for the photo opportunity or to hit the

right number of people by being seen in the right place at the right

time."



The latter is fast becoming a driving force. And the reason's clear, he

says: "The right activity could be seen by 10,000 people who, in turn,

talk to another 50,000 about what they have seen."



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