Are Buzz Agents Among Us?
Exploring the increasingly popular form of invisible advertising
By Christine Loman
In the summer of 2001, 40 beautiful women whispered “save me” into the ears of men in San Francisco, dropped business cards into their pockets and promptly disappeared. The question, “Is it just a game?” was found scrawled in red lipstick on bathroom mirrors. Men dressed in black suits and dark sunglasses stood on the corners of busy streets during rush hour with cardboard signs that read, “The truth is majestic” and “They are watching you.” The bottoms of donut boxes sent to office buildings read, “Who feeds you your information?”
All were part of an advertising campaign mirroring the content of a new video game called Majestic. The brainchild of San Francisco-based Ammo Marketing, the campaign succeeded in generating press and users to Majestic. Part of this success, according to Martin Howard, author of We Know What You Want: How They Change Your Mind, may have been due to the use of buzz agents in the campaign.
Paid by marketing companies, buzz agents make up a subsection of the increasingly popular guerilla marketing strategy. But when phone, car or liquor companies secretly pay for this kind of marketing, it ceases to be the recommendation of a friend and becomes something more calculated: a seemingly invisible commercial.
Information on buzz agents, who are often actors, is scarce. Like most advertising campaigns, their target audiences vary based on the product they’re trying to push. The guise of the buzz agent is the mundane: a fellow bar patron ordering a specific brand of vodka, a tourist with a specific camera. Their guise helps capitalize on the vulnerability of innocuous conversations. Harder to spot than product placement or tattoo advertising, a buzz agent takes fleeting encounters and stamps them with invisible “this message sponsored by…” post scripts.
Some are easier to spot than others. In one of the more well-known cases involving YouTube, an Australian woman named Heidi Clarke beseeched the viewers of her video to help her find her Prince Charming. Hesitantly, Clarke explained she had met a man in a café, a “wonderful, smart, funny” man with whom she felt “this connection.” He departed before she could catch his name, but like any good pseudo-fairy tale left something behind: his suit jacket. Clarke went on to describe the jacket, its beautiful tailoring and quality, and that she was sure her mystery man would want it back.
The video turned out to be a hoax constructed by Australian marketer Naked Communications. The actress’s name was Holly Hardy, and although it’s brand name was never mentioned, she was advertising the jacket her mystery man had left behind. Hardy had previously modeled for Witchery, the company that made the jacket.
In the case of the Majestic campaign, the business cards slipped into the pockets of curious men led to a hotline advertising the game. The campaign got coverage from almost a dozen media outlets on the West Coast, resulting in increased sign ups for the game. The women did not disclose their identities.
The effectiveness of buzz agents lies in their ability to secretly insert advertising messages in everyday life. “If you realize a message is paid for, then you are more likely to engage your cognitive defenses,” said Max Sutherland, a marketing psychologist and co-author of Advertising and the Mind of the Consumer. “When messages are delivered without the receiver being aware that they are receiving a paid-for message, then it does not trigger these defenses.”
Howard agreed: “Buzz agents are effective because they appear to be friends. People trust their friends for genuine advice and light conversation. No one suspects that a random recommendation could be sponsored, so they receive it openly.”
Eight years after the Majestic campaign, Kerry Lange, senior vice president of operations and managing director at Ammo, said the company does less guerilla marketing campaigns and has strict disclosure guidelines.
“The guerilla marketing campaigns seem to generally fall under that quick buzz that people forget about a week or a month after it happens,” Lange said. “The type of experience we find is more valuable for the client is stuff you can do over a longer period of time. We want to keep that conversation going for our consumers.”
Far more popular, says Lange, than Ammo’s guerilla marketing programs are its “influencer programs,” which fall under the larger umbrella of word-of-mouth marketing.
Unlike a buzz agent, an influencer is not paid to endorse a product. In an influencer program, Ammo finds very well-connected people to receive a sample of a product. According to Lange, unlike other marketing companies, Ammo doesn’t require its influencers to talk about the product. What they do require is that their influencers are transparent about who they are and what they are doing.
Also under this larger umbrella of word of mouth marketing is bzzagent.com, a site that allows people to become “BzzAgents.” The concept is simple, according Malcolm Faulds, BzzAgent’s vice director of digital media. BzzAgents sign up online and provide information about themselves and the types of products in which they are interested. Based on this information, agents are then offered different products to sample.
“What we want you to do is to get to know the product and form an opinion,” said Faulds. “We don’t want to alter your opinion, but what we want you to do is talk about the product.”
Not to be confused with buzz agents, BzzAgents are required to disclose who they are and their relationship with the marketer. According to Faulds, BzzAgent has been a leader at establishing these kinds of ethical guidelines for word of mouth marketers. They are one of 21 governing members of the Word of Mouth Marketing Association (WOMMA), which recently worked with the Federal Trade Commission to create new guidelines for marketing and identity disclosure.
WOMMA, which began in 2004, now acts as a sort of regulator for the industry. It worked with the FTC to compile its new guidelines about endorsement transparency. The first three standards of WOMMA’s ethic code’s “Standards of Conduct” state there must be disclosures of identity, compensation and relationships with marketers.
What remains to be seen is how these guidelines will be used in regards to buzz agents, product placement and other advertising methods of their ilk.
But stealth and undercover marketing could be very hard to police when the basic premise of their success rests on being difficult to detect. A 2003 60 Minutes episode describes a classic buzz agent scenario. In order to promote a new camera phone, Sony Ericsson hired 60 actors in 10 cities to pose as fake tourists, approach random people and ask them to take their photo using the phone.
The upcoming film The Joneses, about a buzz family in the middle of suburbia made up of actors, takes this a step further. While the film might be an extrapolation, it does raise a valid point: Where will the buzz agents strike next?
Christine Loman is a sophmore journalism and history major. She would never have finished this without Red Bull, which really does give you wings. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.