Cultural meteorology dictates that almost all innovations sweep into this country from a westerly direction. Bubblegum, opinion polls, political correctness, each of equal worth and merit, were borne to these shores on a breeze from the US.
Now we must prepare ourselves for another American novelty: guerrilla marketing. This involves the deployment of hand-picked operatives – usually resting actors and out-of-work models – who steal forth, sometimes under cover of darkness, and affix thousands of static-cling posters to walls, kiosks, poles, windows, and, most subversively, other people’s ads. Another tactic is “wash-away graffiti”, which “cleans” a company logo into the sidewalk by scrubbing industrial-strength cleanser over a stencil.
Their work done, the bandits melt away into coffee bars and eateries to sip double-shot, half-decaff skinny latte unnoticed. This being America, the whole enterprise is environmentally sound and socially responsible. Although the cling-film holds a strong static charge and will adhere to any flat surface, it is easily removed. Similarly, the graffiti disappears after time. In any case, the guerrillas are sent back into the field a few days later to clean up after themselves. It is as if the French Resistance, having blown up a couple of bridges and a railway line, returned later to repair the damage.
Guerrilla marketing has been around for a while and has already been tried in this country on a small scale, but according to US marketers it is gaining momentum. It is increasingly being used by big corporations such as IBM and Microsoft, both of which have got into trouble with city authorities who objected to flyposters and graffiti, even when the perpetrators later made amends.
It’s worth persisting, say the advertisers, because the rewards outweigh the risks, and the returns compensate for the brushes with officialdom. Respectable companies are turning to guerrilla tactics because conventional marketing is becoming too wasteful, costly and bloody. Running an above-the-line campaign is like fighting on the Western Front: you throw more and more into the battle and if you’re lucky you gain a few yards’ advantage. Far better to use lightning strikes that hit their targets, leave their mark all over town, and stick in the memories of potential customers.
Sam Ewen is chief executive of Interference, a new agency in New York that does nothing but guerrilla marketing. He says he provides an alternative to traditional advertisers that is “high repeat but also very eye-level with the consumers, very grassroots, and in the streets”. He says: “With the invasion of so many different media, it becomes more apparent that you have to make individual connections with people, treating them not as demographics but as who they are, what they do, where they are.”
He admits his methods have their drawbacks. “We’ve had our fair share of people arrested, a lot of citations given. We’ve done a lot of college guerrilla marketing where you end up getting thrown off campus and are asked never to come back.”
But with a devil-may-care disregard for the risks, guerrillas are sometimes instructed to put away their static-cling and graffiti stencils and engage in direct action – albeit of the most friendly and non-confrontational variety.
In New York last week, for example, six men and women stood outside Grand Central Station and flashed their underwear at strangers. They were promoting a health club whose logo was on the underpants and knickers. Darren Paul, managing partner at Night Agency, which organised the event, issues a quick burst of alliterative fire: “We are mooning the message to the masses,” he says. Luckily no one got hurt.
In another campaign, to promote a TV special, Walking with Cavemen, 30 cavepeople distributed 30,000 packs of Caveman Crunch, a “custom-developed edible premium”, and through grunting and hand signals encouraged passers-by to tune in to the show’s premiere.
The organisers were pleased to report that the guerrilla troglodytes brought traffic to a halt in New York, Los Angeles and Washington DC and the show’s ratings far exceeded their goals in those cities.
According to Adam Salacuse, chief executive of Boston-based Alt Terrain, another guerrilla specialist, young people like the tactics because they are subversive. “They know that cooler companies go against the grain and do something that maybe not so legitimate. That lends to the credibility of certain brands,” he says.
Perhaps that is what Vodafone had in mind when it allowed two men to streak at an international rugby game in Sydney last August bearing nothing but its corporate logo painted on their backs. This early British attempt at guerrilla marketing failed to meet the standards of the American pioneers in several respects, not least of which was its tiresome lack of originality. There is a consensus among the sporting cognoscenti that streakers are prats. Streaking, as they say in the US, is so Seventies and so not cool.
Talking of which, another US innovation is on its way. Watch out for the expression “Go figure”, which translates as: “Explain that, if you can.” It’s about to join “no way” and “big time” as part of the English idiomatic lexicon. Who knows, it might even become iconic. Or cutting edge. Or ongoing. It’s certainly upcoming. In a very real sense, of course.