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Fakin' It: A Marketer Intends to Tease Consumers

Even among the countless bits of gimmickry taking up space on the Internet, the ads for Pherotones did look a little fake.

"Can my ring tones make you sexy?" read one ad posted last month on the Hollywood gossip blog Egotastic.com, depicting a red-haired doctor in a white lab coat. "Experience the ring tone secret I discovered in Denmark that's too hot for mainstream science," the ad promised, directing visitors to a Web site, pherotones.com. There, users could download special cellphone ring tones that, when played, were supposed to attract the opposite sex.

But rather than the revolutionary product that Pherotones promised, the ads were the beginning of a buzz marketing campaign under the guise of a fake product (Pherotones) and a fake doctor (Dr. Myra Vanderhood) with a fake Web site (Pherotones.com), all for a real client with less than $250,000 to spend.

The real client is Oasys Mobile, a little-known cellphone content provider that sells games, cellphone wallpaper and ring tones that can be downloaded. Oasys, based in Raleigh, N.C., enlisted the advertising firm McKinney & Silver, in Durham, N.C., to introduce its brand inexpensively — with a nontraditional campaign that it hoped would grab the attention of its desired 18-to-24-year-old demographic.

"You have a brand that nobody knows what it is and you have a consumer that's very specific," said David Baldwin, the executive creative director at McKinney, a unit of Havas. "They don't engage in traditional marketing. But they live online and they live with their cellphones."

So McKinney manufactured the idea of Pherotones, enlisting an actress to play the part of Dr. Vanderhood, the fictional Danish spokeswoman pictured in the ads for Pherotones.

McKinney also hired the Viral Factory, an agency in London that specializes in viral campaigns, to create a video that they hoped would spread around the Web. The video features a mock wedding ceremony where the ring tone on a male guest's cellphone compels the groom to run from the altar and passionately embrace the stunned guest. (So far, the video has been downloaded about 3,000 times on Web sites like YouTube, Punchbaby and Kontraband.)

In mid-December, McKinney placed a Pherotone entry on Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia that is written and updated by thousands of anonymous Web users. It was taken down after a month when Wikipedia discovered that it happened to be untrue.

But the overall campaign is garnering interest: after placing ads on blogs like Gawker and Defamer, Pherotones.com is now averaging 10,000 page views a day. Last week on Technorati, a Web site that tracks blogs, Pherotones.com was in the top 10 percent of the most popular blogs worldwide. It has also attracted attention on insider blogs like AdRants, a Web site that closely tracks the advertising industry.

The campaign has also revived a question that is routinely asked in the advertising industry: is it acceptable to use advertising to trick consumers?

One recent study has indicated that the buying public is willing to be fooled. A study by Northeastern University released last month found that even when participants who pitch products in word-of-mouth campaigns identify their commercial affiliations, it usually does not affect consumers' willingness to pass the marketing message on.

And the planners of buzz marketing campaigns often say that in order to reach the modern multitasking consumer — who may be simultaneously watching television, talking on a cellphone, reading the Internet and sending instant messages — advertising must be a two-way conversation to have an effect.

"The consumers in that target demographic do not want in-your-face marketing," said Gary Ban, the chief executive for Oasys Mobile. "We wanted something that was risqué, funny and something that involves the consumer. If you're doing something that they can identify with, that they can participate in, that's basically something that that generation can tune into."

Nearly 80 percent of marketers spend money on buzz marketing, said Marian Salzman, the executive vice president of JWT (and the trend-spotter responsible for spreading the term "metrosexual" to the masses). And the buzz marketing business is gaining financial muscle: the trade publication Advertising Age estimated that buzz marketing annually is a $100 million to $150 million industry.

The advertising industry has taken note of the power of buzz and viral marketing, which are loosely defined as efforts that encourage consumers to spread marketing messages to each other. A Burger King spoof on the Internet in 2004, for example, centered on a subservient man in a chicken suit, has collected more than 17 million unique visitors, said a spokesman for Crispin Porter & Bogusky, the agency that created the ad.

In 2004, Volvo ran ads in European car magazines claiming that 32 people in Dalaro, a small village in Sweden, all bought Volvo S40 sedans on a single day — more than the local Volvo dealer would typically sell in a year. A short video posted on the town and the "sale" on Volvo's Web site became an Internet cult phenomenon in Europe, with more than 400,000 people visiting the Web site in the first six weeks. The Mystery of Dalaro campaign resulted in impressive sales figures; in the first half of 2004, Volvo sold double the number of S40's it had sold in the first half of 2003.

But how does a company judge the effectiveness of the campaign? The same way any other ad campaign is assessed, Ms. Salzman said.

"I think you measure it first in brand momentum and then in sales," Ms. Salzman said. "Is it building in brand velocity and then are sales following?"

Now Oasys will be able to test the campaign's effect on sales: starting today, the Pherotones Web site is revealing its client by directing visitors to Oasysmobile.com.

Raising the ire of people who initially believed in the power of Pherotones is simply a negative consequence of the whole effort, said Mr. Ban of Oasys Mobile.

"You run the risk in any campaign like this that you might offend somebody," he said. "But even if you offend somebody, it seems to spread the gospel of the campaign."


Julie Bosman, The New York Times. February 16, 2006

Copyright © 2006 The New York Times Company. All rights reserved.