"It is reprehensible and desperate, ranted St. Louis ad man Paul MacFarlane in a recent piece in The Wall Street Journal. "It's deceptive, chimed in consumer activist Gary Ruskin of Commercial Alert.
What could merit such condemnation? Another CEO feathering his nest while staffers' pensions go up in smoke? Another politician glossing over the reality of the 600,000-plus homeless US citizens? Actually no, the crime in question was a "guerrilla (a term that really ought to be consigned to the file marked "silly '90s jargon") marketing campaign by Sony Ericsson Mobile Communications (SEMC) for its new T68i mobile phone/digital camera.
The drive has many clever elements. For example, SEMC is leaving 5,000 dummy versions of the phone in random locations around New York and LA - on bars, in the back of cabs, on trains, etc. - where they attract the interest of people who think they've been left behind by their owners.
The screen on the phones says "if found, visit www.coolermobile.com," which is, of course, a site illustrating the impressive capabilities of the phone.
There are numerous traditional elements to the campaign too, such as a very comprehensive outdoor ad campaign that includes the wrapping of entire trains, and the buying of all poster sites in certain stations.
But WSJ's article - and most of the coverage since - has focused pretty much exclusively on the part of the campaign dubbed "Fake Tourist."
As this moniker suggests, this initiative had actors hang around tourist spots and ask unsuspecting passersby to take their photos with the phone.
There are also "leaners - actresses and female models with extensive training in the phone's features - who will frequent trendy bars and lounges and engage strangers in conversation, presumably about the T68i. Why is this so reprehensible? Well, because these actors won't necessarily declare themselves as being in Sony Ericsson's employ.
This is ridiculous. An ad that claims a phone works all over the US when, in reality, users can't reliably call from one side of a city to another - that's deceptive (though not really desperate or reprehensible). Taking a person's information online and then selling it on to another group - that's deceptive. Offering people "free deals, and then taking their credit cards and tying them into year-long inertia deals - that's deceptive.
But giving folks a fun product demo with no hard sell. How is that contemptible?
This is a truly creative campaign that, to a large extent, lets the product speak for itself. But as with so many of these things, the irony is that it was made more effective by those who complained about it, and thus turned it into an interesting story. The marketing communications team at SEMC had hoped that the likes of PRWeek, BrandWeek, and AdvertisingAge would pick up on the story - but they never dreamed they'd get coverage in The Wall Street Journal and on ABC's World News Tonight.
This coverage has turned the "fake tourists and "leaners into Warholian celebrities, with many being actively sought out by members of the public who seem to think they are involved in a real-life game of Where's Waldo? Sony Ericsson's brand awareness is rocketing, and it confidently predicts sales will follow.
Once again, PR has geometrically multiplied the effectiveness of the initial campaign - thanks, in part, to an ad man from St. Louis.