Stealth Marketing: Is it Ethical?

In the months leading up to election day in 2016, Russia’s “Internet Research Agency” bought roughly 3,500 Facebook ads with the clear intent of sowing support for controversial topics and driving political division. Their campaign included not just ads, but seemingly “normal” user posts seen by 126 million unsuspecting Facebook users. These normal-looking posts came from fake personal accounts of pretend-Americans that engaged with different groups, gained a rapport, and then worked on influencing the groups’ opinions. They created memes that riled up these groups enough to be shared and increase the reach of their divisive messages.

Russia engaged in a massive stealth marketing campaign.

               While Russia’s motivation was more insidious than convincing you to buy a new phone, the tactics are familiar to some unscrupulous marketers.

What is stealth marketing?

According to the Cambridge Dictionary, stealth marketing is: “advertising a product in such a way that people are not aware that you are trying to persuade them to buy it.” This definition can span everything from subtle product placement in a movie, to fake customer reviews, to… well, let’s dive right into this infamous example.

 “I was with a bunch of hot girls and we would just walk into bars, whip out our BlackBerries, and try to get guys to look at them by flirting,” says Royter. “We’d say, ‘Put your number in my phone and I’ll totally call you. We’ll go out on a date!’ But we just wanted them to try the BlackBerry. I definitely didn’t call anyone.”

This was an ad campaign by Blackberry to influence people to see these attractive women endorse these phones as well as put them in the hands of unsuspecting male targets. By having the phone in their hands, the idea was that they would be more likely to buy or endorse that phone in the future. I would imagine if you asked these men afterward how they would feel about it, they would be angry at being deceived. We must consider as marketers that these practices have a long-term effect of eroding the trust of consumers even further.

A survey by AdAge found that “advertising and marketing” had the lowest percentage of trust of all other institutions in the survey with only 4% of the respondents feeling that people in advertising and marketing practice integrity. This is 2% below the U.S. Congress and 5% below financial institutions. If it’s not enough that we are hurting our brands and our profession when we engage in these tactics, we also risk damaging the power of good old word-of-mouth, when we create fake word-of-mouth enough times.

There is a large continuum of marketing practices and it can be hard to see where the line is. We all want to stand out in the sea of loud advertisements. But we should focus on standing out by being clever, refreshing, thought-provoking… not sleazy. If your campaign involves a tactic that you wouldn’t want to be made public, you’re doing it wrong. Let’s practice integrity creatively so that we can create harmless buzz.