Thursday, July 31, 2008

Social Media and Subviral Marketing

Does social media have a dark side? Is it prone to manipulation? And is it really true that there's no such thing as bad publicity? These questions came to mind as I read the Slate article about the new, racy Puma "ad" that may or may not be fake and the company's response, which also may or may not be fake.

The image is certainly controversial. I'll let Slate describe it:

A photograph of a young woman in a short skirt, on her knees in front of a standing man; the picture is cropped at the woman's shoulders, so you can't see exactly what's going on, but you can see enough to make a good guess. Also, some creamy liquid seems to have dripped onto the woman's thigh.

What turns this PG-13 soft-core pornography into potential marketing is that the Puma brand is evident in the photo. The woman is wearing Puma shoes, there's a Puma bag strategically placed in the foreground, and a Puma logo appears in the corner.

But Puma says they have nothing to do with it. Not only that, they unleashed the lawyers, who sent cease and desist letters to bloggers who shared the racy "ad." And, as anyone who's been paying attention knows, in the age of social media there's nothing like threatening lawsuits to really set the blogosphere on fire. Sending lawyers into battle with bloggers is like fighting fire with a stream of gasoline--instead of successfully quieting the buzz about the "fake" ad, Puma's actions increased attention, discussion, and sharing.

So, was the company's response a tactical mistake on Puma's part? Some are suggesting this is all part of a Puma subviral marketing strategy, and if this is true, it's both a brilliant manipulation of social media and a dangerous precedent that could backfire on the brand.

The idea of subviral marketing is this: Anonymously release edgy, inappropriate, and attention-getting branded content into the social media wild. Wait it for to get noticed. Purposely react in a heavy-handed manner that only incites more attention. Enjoy all the attention and PR.

Why would a brand resort to this strategy? It's damn cheap, and it gives the brand the opportunity to appeal to a different demo and to stretch their brand without really moving the brand in a different direction.

At least that's the theory. But there are plenty of dangers, starting with the chances that people find out--or merely come to believe--that a brand is really behind the fake ad. If this happens, the brand can appear manipulative, untruthful, and abusive of consumers' trust. Not only that, but if the brand comes to be associated with the fake ad, then the brand isn't just stretching its boundaries--it's moving them, whether or not that is the intended objective.

Another danger with subviral marketing--assuming it is a real strategy--is that it is one that can work a couple of times for a handful of first movers, but if many brands try this over time, it will begin to leave consumers feeling jaded and used. Instead of paying attention to future ads that seem purposely provocative, consumers will roll their eyes and ignore the attempt at subversive publicity.

Worse yet, subviral marketing could cause consumers to think less of the brand rather than more. Subviral tactics may begin to appear gutless rather than edgy. If the brand really wanted to show its racy side or appeal to a younger and edgier audience, why not have the confidence to simply do it rather than resorting to hide-and-seek tactics that theoretically permit the brand to distance itself if the reaction is too strong and negative?

There's no evidence the Puma ad is subviral marketing, but the Slate article raises excellent questions, such as why would someone go to all this trouble to mock/promote Puma rather than the 800-pound gorilla in the sports marketing world, Nike. Was this just a consumer having some fun? Might this be another example of a brand-unapproved work by an agency getting leaked (much like the recent JC Penney ad that got attention at Cannes, despite the fact the brand never wanted to be associated with the racy spec creative)? Or was this a cold, calculated subviral plan on the part of Puma?

If subviral marketing is a true strategy, it's a dangerous one. Attitudes and "buzz" change quickly in the social media world. A fake ad can get some brand-building buzz one week and unleash an avalanche of brand-destroying derision the next. For established brands, it seems an inappropriate manipulation of consumers' trust and a misuse of social media.

I'll be watching the news and feedback on the Puma ad to evaluate if the brand benefited or was harmed by the fake ad and it's aggressive reaction (or perhaps by its calculated subviral marketing strategy).

Thanks to Andy for sharing this!

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