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Guerrilla tactics growing in ad jungle

Looking for novel ways to stand out, more marketers are using unconventional -- and often controversial -- strategies

00:00 EST Friday, January 18, 2002

Here's a guerrilla marketing idea you can take to the bank.

GoGorilla Media, a New York agency that specializes in over-the-top marketing tactics, wants to slap ads directly on U.S. currency. Defacing bank notes is against the law, but GoGorilla aims to get around the rules by using removable stickers that don't permanently alter the bills.

"Our lawyers have told us that it's technically not illegal," agency president Alan Wolan says. "I'm really anxious to do it."

In a world cluttered with commercial messages, more advertisers are looking for novel ways to stand out. And that is giving a boost to firms that specialize in guerrilla marketing -- a term that encompasses a range of unconventional, and often controversial, advertising strategies.

GoGorilla, which was launched in June, will put ads almost anywhere a client desires -- on toilet paper or pizza boxes, inside fortune cookies, on washroom walls or on wrappers of condoms handed out at nightclubs. One of its newest marketing weapons is heat-sensitive ads on coffee cups. Pour the coffee in and the ad magically appears.

It's all about surprising consumers with advertising where they least expect it.

Guerrilla marketing has several advantages, proponents say. It is often cheaper than launching a traditional TV, radio or billboard campaign. It is highly targetable. And it can leave a lasting impression.

Vancouver agency Rethink recently shipped 200,000 free wire hangers to dry cleaners in British Columbia. Each paper-covered hanger bears the logo of the British Columbia Automobile Association (BCAA) and includes instructions for using the hanger to retrieve keys from a locked car. The alternative, of course, is to join BCAA and let it take care of the problem.

"For not a lot of money -- we're talking about 10 cents a hanger here -- we're providing something that guys will take home to their wives and talk about over the dinner table," Rethink partner Chris Staples says.

Such guerrilla tactics were once largely the domain of small companies that couldn't afford traditional advertising. Now, big brands are turning to guerrilla marketing in growing numbers.

In Amsterdam, for instance, Audi AG was looking for ways to build brand loyalty. So its ad agency dispatched street teams to wash as many parked Audis as possible. After polishing each car, they left a note on the windshield that read: "Sorry, but we couldn't resist. Yours sincerely, Audi."

In another sign of guerrilla marketing's growing importance, last month the Dockers division of Levi Strauss & Co. said it would put 100 per cent of its European ad budget into non-traditional tactics.

Often, the goal is to generate publicity with a campaign so wacky that the media will report on it. When Goodyear Canada Inc. offered prize money to Canadians who would legally change their surname from Dunlop to Dunlop-Tire, media outlets across Canada carried the story. U.S. talk-show host Conan O'Brien even mentioned it in his opening monologue.

The stunt cost Goodyear about $40,000, including $25,000 in prize money -- a bargain considering the amount of publicity it generated.

"It will be very hard to top. I can't imagine in my career getting this much value for that type of investment," says Jane Wilcox, a spokeswoman for Goodyear, which owns the rights to Dunlop tires in Canada.

Cost isn't the only reason companies embrace unconventional tactics. According to guerrilla marketing author and consultant Jay Conrad Levinson, traditional advertising has lost much of its effectiveness.

When there were just a handful of TV networks, running a 30-second TV spot was a great way to reach a mass audience. But with the proliferation of specialty TV channels and the growth of the Internet, the audience is becoming increasingly splintered and hard to reach.

Mr. Levinson, chairman of Guerrilla Marketing International Inc., a consulting firm in Mill Valley, Calif., says the ads themselves are part of the problem.

Agencies have become more concerned with producing pretty commercials and winning industry awards than selling product, he says. "The films they do for television are gorgeous. They are some of the most exciting films made in the world today. But they're not very good as marketing vehicles."

So what's a good marketing vehicle? One of his favourite tricks is an envelope with lots of stamps on it. Most people will toss a direct mail piece that is metred or has a single stamp, but "if a person gets a letter with 11 stamps on it, they're going to notice it and open it," he says.

The same goes for ads on washing machines at laundromats and on promotional bicycles that companies loan, free of charge, to tourists in Toronto and other cities, says Mike Wixson, chief executive officer of media brokerage firm AvailableMedia Inc. in Mississauga.

Alternative advertising is "coming on strong," he says.

But guerrilla marketing isn't without risks. In a bid to shock or surprise people, companies can run into trouble.

In November, computer giant International Business Machines Corp. of Armonk, N.Y., agreed to pay the City of San Francisco $120,000 (U.S.) to clean up hundreds of graffiti ads for its "Peace, Love, Linux" promotion. IBM said the ads were made with biodegradable chalk that would wear off with foot traffic and rain, but city officials said the ads were not biodegradable and took 200 hours to remove. IBM is also facing cleanup costs in New York, Boston and Chicago.

The gaffe may have worked in IBM's favour, though.

"IBM wins by losing here," a City of San Francisco official told the Los Angeles Times. "It's a pretty sad statement, but the company got exactly what it hoped for -- publicity and controversy."

Mr. Wolan at GoGorilla, which participated in the IBM campaign, says advertisers should be prepared to take some flack if they launch a guerrilla assault.

"The brazen should budget for legal fees, fines and extra Tylenol . . ." he wrote in Brandweek magazine recently. "Don't be afraid of negative publicity -- it gets people talking about your brand."

But not every advertiser is eager for negative press. So far, Mr. Wolan has been unable to convince anyone to put its ads on money, though he's working on it. "I'm sure we're going to find someone to do it."

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