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Stealth Marketing- The Ethical Debate

Various studies have been showing stunningly high numbers of advertisements (ad) a person living in modern society is exposed to daily, ranging from a few hundred to more than 20,000. Whichever the number might be, it is still far too many for ordinary human beings like you and me to absorb, or even to take note of, daily. As a matter of fact, we do not.


For decades, people have been bombarded by advertising; on every TV channel tuned in, every social media page visited, every magazine opened, there they are – the ads. With this, audiences have evolved. We’ve learnt to filter messages, block advertising from our views and our minds, practice selective attention and focus only on what we want. Furthermore, with technologies including the remote control, ad blockers, online filtering, and many more, audiences now have the capability to “protect” themselves from various marketing messages.


However, what if we did not know that the messages we were being exposed to were actually a marketing scheme. What if the ad came in a form of a conversation, a movie, or a game? Could we still filter the messages? Would the impact be different on us? How would we feel about it?


And the ultimate question is “should marketers do it?”


Stealth marketing, also known as buzz marketing, is any marketing strategy that advertises a product to people without them knowing they are being marketed to. There are many techniques in stealth marketing, the most common being product placement and undercover marketing. The main purpose of stealth marketing is not to generate immediate sales, but to create interest and excitement that will make consumers more receptive to direct advertising later. A variety of companies can use stealth marketing techniques to drum up buzz for a product. It is most commonly used by larger companies that can afford to use multiple marketing strategies for a single product; although, stealth marketing has also been used successfully by small companies to create interest in a new product.


Imagine the circumstances where you do not realize that what you are seeing is an advertisement. Imagine learning that the earth is round from two different sources, your textbook and your neighbour, which source would you have believed? I guess most of you would answer that it is your textbook. This is because you trust in the expertise and the intention of the author of your textbook, and not so much of your neighbour. Now, imagine the same for a product testimonial. Looking for a product, will you search for a review from a general blogger or from the company’s website.


Another issue evolving around stealth marketing is the fact that, in many situations like that of the fake tourist, the activity is so granular and it activates in such a personal and discreet level that it is not traditionally being monitored by the regulators. Unlike general advertisements, there is less amount of monitoring the marketing messages being presented to audiences by stealth marketers. How can you then be sure that the messages are regulated by law and that they are truthful?


Not knowing that a marketing activity is actually a marketing act, your protective mechanisms are put off guard. You might pay more attention to the messages than you normally would, and you might even be deceived to believe that the messages were genuine and ingenuous. In this kind of circumstances, it is thus easier for marketers to grab your attention and influence your thoughts and behaviours. At this point, marketers are risking their reputation and trust from you in exchange for your unguarded attention. As a consumer, how do you feel about it?


How would you feel if you have to be suspicious of every message you see, every media you consume, and even every person you talk to?


Marketers should hold the duty of educating the public of stealth marketing, or other forms of activities they practice, in the effort of fair and truthful treatment towards the audiences. As technology and our society evolves, so should the way we communicate. The constitutional rights bill was written in the circumstance when there was a need for it when freedom was constrained. Now that freedom is mundane, it seems that people are starting to abuse it. Hereby, it is important to think about this issue and ask ourselves – when do we draw the line?



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