The Latest Marketing Ploy: Try to Get Arrested?

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Fashionwhore.com's guerrilla marketing campaign in New York's Greenwich Village failed miserably last week when the police showed up and put an end to its efforts - or did it?


Fashionwhore, an online fashion, arts and lifestyle site, had staff members hand out Tic-Tacs in small plastic "drug baggies" bearing the site's logo. The campaign was meant to be an edgy play on the Ecstasy drug culture as this trendy club drug is generally distributed in pill form in tiny plastic bags.


The problem arose when police officers saw staff members handing out the suspicious-looking pills in Washington Square Park - well known as a hot spot for drug dealers. The officers confiscated the hundreds of bags of Tic-Tacs that Fashionwhore staff members had in their possession and threw them out of the park.


Handing out what appeared at first glance to be drugs "was definitely a joke," said Todd Selby, president of Fashionwhore.com, New York. "It got people's attention, but it was only little white mints."


Selby asserted that he had no idea the promotion would warrant police attention.


"We are new to the [Mayor] Giuliani New York City," he said. "We didn't really expect something like this would happen. They came down on us pretty hard and ran us out of the park. We were just trying to get people hyped about the site. We didn't have any trouble in any other cities."


The campaign consisted of the distribution of 30,000 baggies in New York, San Francisco and London.


Almost getting arrested helped Fashionwhore.com to accomplish exactly what it set out to do, said H. Peet Rapp, a senior research analyst at ActivMedia Research, Peterborough, NH.


"They probably got promotion just from that act through the police report or on the nightly news," he said. "You can see what kind of market they were going for. Obviously, enough of their targeted client base can relate to their situation and will go click on the site as a result of it."


The site has seen an increase in traffic as a result of the added attention, said Selby. The day following the incident, the site posted a press release poking fun at the New York Police Department, complete with a quote from its general counsel, Scott Andrew, stating how he never thought he'd "have to explain to a police officer the difference between Ecstasy and Tic-Tacs."


Selby denied the press release was an effort to milk the story for all it was worth.


"There were rumors that we were distributing Ecstasy," he said. "That's why we issued the press release. We don't want to be portrayed as handing out Ecstasy in the park."


Whatever their motivation, "the whole act was an effective promotion," said Rapp. "Maybe it wasn't what they exactly intended, but the end result was probably the same or more than they expected."


Internet companies resorting to guerrilla marketing efforts involving street teams handing out free goodies is a direct result of the overabundance of advertising dot-coms have been running in more traditional realms, said Rapp.


"Consumers have essentially been inundated with dot-com ads," he said. "They're tired of watching them on TV and hearing them on the radio."


These types of campaigns can be found, literally, on many congested street corners in metropolitan areas. Within the past month alone, Staples.com hired people dressed as "walking supply closets" to hand out logoed rulers, Pinkdot.com had "Pink dotters" pass out buttons at local businesses and eMazing.com began a six-month, 25-city tour featuring a 28-foot Hum-Vee Limousine.


"To get word-of-mouth, this is exactly the type of thing that has to be done," said Rapp. "I expect to see a lot more of this promotional marketing this year."
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