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Posted
December 7, 2004

The Commercialization of Chit-Chat

Companies want to control word-of-mouth in order to push their products. That enthusiastic recommendation from a friend may have been a paid commercial message.

In the 1950s, Americans were scandalized when Vance Packard revealed in his best-selling book, The Hidden Persuaders, that advertisers subtly manipulate our emotions. Imagine! Fifty years later marketers are working side-by-side with neuroscientists trying to discover how brand loyalty can be improved by understanding brain chemistry. In the steady march of progress known as market culture, we now learn from journalist Rob Walker in The New York Times Magazine (December 5) that a cutting-edge marketing firm, BzzAgent, is infiltrating informal social networks with agents who secretly pitch us products.

Some 60,000 ordinary Americans have signed up with BzzAgent to enthuse about new brands of sausage, cosmetics and other products as they go about their lives. A competing “word-of-mouth” marketer, Tremor, a division of Proctor & Gamble, has some 240,000 teenagers doing much the same thing, and a spin-off called Tremor Moms is in the works.

One BzzAgent volunteer, Karen Bollaert, described how she casually worked in mentions of a new product, No Puffery, that a client wanted BzzAgent to promote. (The product is a gel that soothes skin below the eyes.) When a friend moaned that she would have to get up early the next day, Bollaert suggested she use No Puffery. When a pharmaceutical rep worried about how she would look after a plane flight, Bollaert suggested using No Puffery. At the wake for her grandfather, a relative complimented her on well she was looking, and Bollaert credited No Puffery.

What’s really amazing — and creepy — is that these stealth marketers are volunteers. They are not getting paid for their pitches. They simply get free samples and a sense of being elite insiders at the cutting edge of the next big trends. They get the sense of being part of something bigger than themselves. “Participating in a voluntary marketing army serves as a kind of consumer-status enabler,” writes Walker. “You weren’t the first on your block with Moon Boots; at least you can be the one to tell your friends about Al Fresco sausage. The more people you can persuade that Al Fresco sausage is good, the better you’ll feel about your discovery. BzzAgent, in turn, will help you be a better persuader. Pretty much everyone likes the feeling of having ‘the upper hand’,” as one volunteer put it.

BzzAgent has made a brilliant discovery that it is putting to truly insidious use. Its brilliant insight is that people are often more motivated by the “social market” of their peers than by the currency of conventional markets. “Under some circumstances,” writes Walker, “we will expend more effort for social rewards than we will for monetary rewards. This suggests that the agents may do more to spread word of mouth precisely because they are not being paid.” Researchers have discovered, for example, that most people will be more likely to help a friend load up a moving van in exchange for a pizza than do so for the cash equivalent of a pizza.

The company’s insidious innovation is to infiltrate trusted social networks with quietly deceptive marketing tactics. (The volunteers may be sincere, but their affiliations with BzzAgent are rarely evident.) The company has found a way to leverage the status anxieties and aspirations of volunteers in order to stimulate word-of-mouth marketing. Walker calls it the “commercialization of chitchat.”

Sophisticates may scoff at the paranoia that pervades William Gibson’s recent novel, Pattern Recognition, a thriller about the cynical, high-tech machinations of the marketing world. (The lead character is a “cool hunter” who ferrets out emerging trends from the street in order to “productize” them, and then gets caught up in a stealth marketing project played out on a global stage.) If anything, Gibson captures the cynicism of the new marketing gambits. In fact, based on the trends exemplified by BzzAgent, the legendary Gibson will have to run pretty fast if he’s going to remain a futurist.