Blog: Marketing innovation or privacy invasion?

Catherine Sleep | 28 March 2007

Word of mouth (WOM) marketing, the hot trend in North American advertising, is apparently preparing to hit the UK.

As consumers switch off to ads, literally in an increasing number of cases with the spread of digital boxes (I haven’t sat through a single commercial break since Sky+ made its way into our living room), advertisers are being forced to constantly invent new ways of connecting with their audience.

Positive WOM product endorsement has always been a veritable advertising Holy Grail. But US advertising agencies have taken things one step further by providing volunteers with freebies in exchange for them casually slipping product endorsements into conversations with friends and family.

Now, I’m certainly not one to knock getting free stuff. And if I like something, I may well share this info with my nearest and dearest. But does combining the two smack of selling out? Is this commercialisation of our personal relationships an invasion of privacy and a betrayal of trust?

Advertisers say not. Because there is no regulation of what people say, the endorsement is presented as genuine. Moreover, the volunteers must state that they are part of an advertising campaign at the outset.

So will it work?

I can pinpoint the single one thing that annoys me most about advertising on TV. My biggest gripe is that the sound dramatically increases during the commercial brake. Presumably, this is to attract your attention – but if this is the case it is so clumsily executed that, for me, it is simply a signal to switch off.

WOM advertising is certainly a lot more subtle than this. If a friend were to recommend a product, at the moment I would take them seriously. But then, as soon as they told me they were part of an ad campaign I think my suspicions would be aroused. No longer is this person acting in my interests, they are acting in the interests of the company that is bribing them with free goodies.

What are your thoughts? Is there a way that companies can tap into positive word of mouth without drawing the legitimacy of the messenger into question?

For more on the debate, check out the BBC’s take on WOM.

Katy Humphries, News Editor


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