Take heed, young single men, before you go out on the town. No, this is not a lecture on safe sex. It's a reminder to shave! Don't be a "Stubble Boy"! Or so advises noscruf.org. A video shows a lovely young woman who, after scratching herself on the stubble of a lazy date once too often, declares him "Stubble Boy" and asks him to picture a world where all women refuse to shave. You can imagine where the date goes from there.
Noscruf.org is one in a long line of funny, hip, edgy Web experiences that have dominated YouTube, been passed on in MySpace, and been sent virally through e-mail. Was it the invention of a college kid with too much time on her hands? The latest satire from the JibJab pranksters?
Try Gillette. Yes, the makers of your razor blades. And I say your razor blades because the company has close to 70 percent market share. And this is, in part, the point.
"We created the campaign to influence behavior change in men," said Wendi Smith, spokeswoman for Gillette and Digitas, the digital and direct agency that is producing some of the most creative ad products in media today. "Our data shows that only 3 percent of women actually prefer the scruffy look, and guys want women to love to be with them." In other words, if you're in the shaving market, you want guys to lose the scruff. "It's a long-term strategy versus a short-term [return on investment]."
Ok, but let's stop and see what's really going on here:
>>The site is unbranded. The creators and brands are almost impossible to find.
>>The site appears on no publisher sites. It's not a banner on washingtonpost.com or a 30-second spot on Comedy Central, but a stand-alone destination with audience delivered through SEO, SEM, and word-of-mouth. It is, in fact, a publisher on its own. And it's high-quality.
So will marketers start spending less money on contextual publisher content (the traditional wisdom behind putting Dove ads near "Desperate Housewives," or on iVillage) and more on their own (or unbranded) sites, driving traffic through search and other viral means?
"We'll see campaigns like this more and more as people spend time online," says Smith. "You have to earn the attention of consumers here more than any other medium, partly because we're accustomed to surfing and it's easy to click away. Also, consumers are not necessarily going to go directly to a marketer's site, therefore we need to do something entertaining to grab them. In the beginning of a campaign, launching unbranded can spark interest and engage consumers."
Viral online marketing, of course, is not entirely new. BMW Films may have been the precursor. Burger King's "Subservient Chicken" which allowed you to tell a man dressed in a chicken suit to do almost anything, and which launched initially unbranded may have surpassed Yahoo in traffic in the week of its launch. American Express invited viewers to tour Jerry Seinfeld's virtual apartment. BMW in Europe has a fabulous BMW Coupe campaign right now through which you can send a video to a friend; the narrator will personally call them by name and talk about specific interests and quirks they have.
Traditional publishers argue that, over time, marketers will learn that high-quality (as well as high-quantity) audiences can be found on traditional publishing sites, and there is no reason why they won't pay such publishers to host or link to these experiences. And the jury is still out on whether advertisers who self-publish actually sell more cars, chicken sandwiches, or razor blades.
On the latter point, it's hard to imagine why advertiser-published spots would be less effective than 30-second spots on television. Arguably, they may work better, as you can target to the right audiences so much more effectively online. On the former point traditional publishers becoming the venue for such ads I'd say maybe. What marketers will seek, in any case, are the cheapest forms of driving audience. And in this world, with Web sites that are as much about branding as action, search will drive "branding" experiences more cheaply, and arguably as well or better, than traditional publisher sites.
Nothing surprises me anymore in these fantastically creative times. But I must confess that in my old washingtonpost.com days, I never guessed that yet one more potential competitor might be my own client!
Christopher M. Schroeder is CEO and president of The Health Central Network, a ChoiceMedia company. (firstname.lastname@example.org, www.thehealthcentralnetwork.com)