PORTLAND, OR: Advocacy group Commercial Alert has asked the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to investigate whether buzz, or word-of-mouth, marketing violates federal laws prohibiting deceptive advertising.
In a letter released last week, the organization asks the FTC to review whether companies are deceiving consumers by using "buzz marketers who fail to disclose that they have been enlisted to promote products."
But organizations such as the Word of Mouth Marketing Association (WOMMA) argue that such complaints simply represent a backlash against the rising popularity of their work.
Andy Sernovitz, CEO of WOMMA, called Commercial Alert "an anti-advertising, anti-marketing group."
"Buzz marketing is hot," he said. "All they've done is picked the latest, greatest thing to latch onto. It's just a quick PR stunt."
Sernovitz did acknowledge, however, the concern in many corners about buzz marketing.
An Ad Age story questioning the legality of "stealth marketing" (October 4) roused the ire of WOMMA when it appeared on the title's website with the headline "Is buzz marketing illegal?" WOMMA posted a rebuttal on its site claiming that the story didn't distinguish between "buzz" or "word of mouth" and "stealth" marketing, which it claims are different practices.
"Word of mouth is listening to the consumer and giving them a voice. Stealth is tricking people. Honest marketers oppose all forms of stealth and deception. We never pay people to say things, or ask people to misrepresent who they are or who they work for," read the rebuttal.
As an example of the tactics his group opposes, Gary Ruskin, executive director of Commercial Alert, cited Sony Ericsson's 2002 camera phone campaign, in which it paid people to pose as tourists and ask passersby to take their photo. They would then extol the phone's virtues.
Ruskin also pointed to Procter & Gamble's Tremor initiative, which recruits teenagers to talk about P&G products.
Tremor participants need not disclose their participation because they are not required to talk only about products they like, or say only positive things, said Robyn Schroeder, P&G media relations assistant.
"We don't tell them what to say," she said. "We're ethical."
But some admit a lack of disclosure is ultimately unwise for more than legal reasons.
"The moment a teenager is given a product, and spreads the word, and then a friend finds out they're shilling for the company, that teenager loses credibility in the eyes of their friends," said Paul Rand, chief development and innovation officer at Ketchum, and a WOMMA member.