Sunday, September 30, 2007

Is Ford's "Swap Your Ride" Program an Example of Stealth Marketing?

I've noticed the Ford commercials where everyday car drivers were able to swap their non-Ford cars with a Ford vehicle for one week so that they could experience what the Ford vehicle was like. In the commercial, and on the Swap Your Ride's website, Ford was very up front that they didn't tell the people whose cars were swapped that the camera crews were from Ford and instead told them they were doing "market research" (if you watch the "Behind the Scenes" video at the website they justify doing this because Ford wanted the drivers' honest opinions). Ford videotaped each person's experience and promoted these stories in the commercial and on the website, again without telling the people the film crews were from Ford.

In order to actually make the commercial or put these people's stories on the website I'm sure Ford had to secure the people's permissions and at that time they must have found out Ford was behind this. So it seems like we have an example of "delayed disclosure" going on here.

This makes a great case study for one of my classes. Here's a question I would pose to my students: Is the Ford "Swap Your Ride" program an example of stealth, or undercover, marketing? And if so, is this unethical? First, a definition. The Word of Mouth Marketing Association (WOMMA) defines stealth marketing as: "Any practice designed to deceive people about the involvement of marketers in a communication."

Second, we need a set of criteria to work with. Let's use WOMMA's Honesty ROI guidelines to briefly work through this case. Why is this an appropriate set of guidelines? Is this a WOM marketing program, and if so, how? I would contend it is because the marketer is using stories or testimonials from everyday people about their product-related experiences in order to engage an audience and promote their brand.

Of the honesty of relationship, opinion, and identity, it seems that this program initially fails on the first but is OK on the second and third. Specifically, Ford didn't have its crew disclose the fact that they were working for Ford and instead said they were market researchers (violates honesty of relationship). The people in the video seemed to be real people (that is, not actors or employees of the company, or otherwise paid or compensated beyond getting the chance to drive a new car around for a week; so honesty of identity seems OK here). And these real people seem to be providing their own unscripted, honest assessments (honesty of opinion; though it's clear the comments were edited and we have no access to any negative comments anyone might have said). Interestingly the video on the website uses the language of "Real people. Real opinions." which supports the analysis so far.

So, according to WOMMA's Honesty ROI ethical framework, this really comes down to an issue of disclosure of the marketer's relationship. There was an intent to deceive but it was justified on the grounds of soliciting people's honest opinion. And Ford came clean about it to the larger audience in their commercial and in the video. (Interestingly, this deceit is also carried out in academic research, as long as the benefits of doing so outweigh the costs, that the disclosure eventually occurs, and that no one gets hurt in the process.)

So, let's think about if anyone got hurt here. The drivers are getting to drive around in a new car for a week and show it off to their friends which juices their sense of being special. There could be a feeling of being "duped" and there may have been some backlash. And this may have had the effect of undermining credibility in marketing activities or making it that much more difficult for real market researchers to do their work (see the Market Research Society's Code of Conduct for interesting thoughts on this; of course the people doing the commercial aren't actually market researchers so they wouldn't be bound by such guidelines).

Ford must have done all their legal due diligence about the deception. It's probably legal since the larger audience in the commercial or video was informed that Ford was deceiving people for the purposes of filming the videos. It seems that it comes down to the following: in what situations is "delayed disclosure" (un)ethical*? Is disclosure a black or white issue or are there shades of gray? And does the WOMMA Honesty ROI or The Ethics 20 Questions give us the tools to make this decision?

What do you think?

* The issue of delayed disclosure is addressed by Justin Foxton in the book Connected Marketing (chapter titled "Live buzz marketing") so interested readers can also turn there.