Heineken Hoaxes Are Real Deal For Building E-Mail Names

The online extension of a print-based promotion has generated Dutch-owned brewer Heineken USA Inc. an estimated 60,000 e-mail addresses in its database since it began in July.

Though not all have opted in for offers — the number is being determined — the viral promotion is central to the brewer's plan to appeal to people ages 21-28 in a medium they are most comfortable with — the Internet.

“They're stretching their target audience,” said Mark Galley, associate creative director at Heineken interactive agency Modem Media, East Norwalk, CT. “Where it used to be white, affluent, yachtsmen-type, now they're expanding to include a younger, more urban audience.”

The Heineken Headline Hoax is not the only promotion begun this year as part of the new mission. But it is the most successful in terms of capturing e-mail addresses.

In January, the Heineken online database stood at roughly 5,000 opted-in names. Counting intervening promotions before Headline Hoax, the database now is estimated at 90,000 to 100,000 names. Not all of those names have given permission to contact them with offers or updates.

Most of those intervening promotions were sweepstakes: Win a trip to the U.S. Open tennis tournament. Win a trip to Heineken's Mardi Gras Mansion. Win a big-screen TV. Win a trip to the ESPY Awards. Win a trip to a Jamaican House Party.

What makes Headline Hoax more successful is the television trend on which it rides: hidden-camera shows like the “Jamie Kennedy Experiment” and the lesser-known “Punk'd” that play pranks on people.

For Heineken, this trend is a stroke of luck. The online promotion, available at www.heineken.com/headlines, was adapted from an ongoing print campaign called “News Clippings.” The advertisements, by New York ad agency Publicis, feature funny newspaper headlines about Heineken.

Applying that logic online, the Headline Hoax encourages consumers to trick their friends by choosing from a predetermined list of amusing headlines and photographs.

A popular headline is “[Person's name] caught stroking Heineken bottle at picnic.” The accompanying picture shows a hand stroking a Heineken bottle on a picnic table.

Another favorite is “[Person's name] too touchy at touch football game.” The visual shows one footballer tackling another. The tackler has one hand up the other's shirt and another hand pulling at the shorts.

The first of five steps requires the recipient's name and e-mail address. Copy states, “First, we want to know who the sucker is. All we ask is that you make it up to them by buying them a cold Heineken sometime soon.”

The e-mailed article is intended to trick the recipient into thinking the fictitious story is on the front page of a major Web site, in this case either Maxim magazine's Maximonline.com or TheSportingNews.com.

The process of hoaxing generates multiple addresses for Heineken. Along with the addresses of the hoaxer and the victim, the hoaxer can forward that e-mail to mutual friends, alerting them to the hoax. Of course, Heineken takes care not to pre-empt the hoax. The mutual friends get news of the hoax only after the intended victim has opened his e-mail.

While registering for the hoax, consumers can opt in for updates and information from Heineken. They are asked for their name and mailing and e-mail address in a separate registration process on another part of the Heineken site.

“2003 was really gathering these names through a variety of promotions,” Galley said. “2004 is really about utilizing those names in ways that offer relevant value to the recipients.

“They're not going to be spammed with e-mails,” he said. “They're going to be relevant offers as to what they indicated, as to what motivates them more. This is the foundation for more viral marketing, which we believe in wholeheartedly. Whenever we can, we want to make it viral.”

The viral aspect gets a further boost through a function that lets the victim play a hoax on another person. Again, mutual friends are let in on the hoax, and the cycle goes on.

“We obviously want to be able to market to these names and sell more to them,” Galley said, “and through experiences on the Web and off, reinforce Heineken with this target audience that it's cool, fun, witty, smart, hip.”

Heineken publicized the hoax promotion with a Flash banner and four GIF versions. The Flash unit is headlined, “Get a taste of the Heineken Headline Hoax.” Viewers can enter a friend's name in that unit and see a sample of the fake headline on, say, Maximonline.com.

The GIF banners have headlines like “Hoax campaign plunges nation into chaos.” They show images of picketers with signs, “Stop the hoax.” Once clicked on, the units take the viewer to the Heineken site.

Banners ran on Sports Illustrated's SI.com, ESPN.com, Yahoo, TheOnion.com, Maximonline.com and TheSportingNews.com.

“Not only were people interacting with the banner, but they were coming to the site and engaging with it for an average of five to seven minutes,” Galley said. “Think about what would be the value of that on television and print.”

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