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Current Controls on Cutting Edge Advertisements & Buzz Marketing

Updated on January 30, 2012

Using a mixture of technology and ingenuity, marketers are finding new ways to reach consumers. Growing fields in marketing include Internet and mobile advertising, behavioral advertising, interactive campaigns, product placement, and buzz (also referred to as word of mouth, engagement, under cover, or viral) marketing. These techniques, often obtuse and decentralized, may be difficult to control under existing government regulations.

Below, I will explore controls put specifically on buzz marketing methods by public and private agencies, both in general and with regard to some select types of buzz marketing campaigns.  I'll also share my sources with you so you can do a bit of digging on your own, if you like!

New Marketing Techniques

Buzz marketing is a form of advertising utilizing word of mouth communication and nontraditional campaigns.  It has many different manifestations and "involves techniques that can range from employing actors to extol the virtues of products in bars, to more structured campaigns" such as branded parties or product giveaways (Charles, 2).  A company, for example, can distribute samples to consumers with the hope that they will talk about the product with friends, as Kellogg did with its FruitaBu bagged fruit snacks. 

Many advertisers and brand managers assert that buzz marketing has been "identified as one of the strongest and most credible routes to educating people on key product intrinsics" however because the method is new, it is difficult to know exactly how effective it is.  Nevertheless, 92% of men and 95% of women say a friend's recommendation is likely to influence a purchase, and large brands such as Sony, Nestle, AOL, and Ralph Lauren are taking heed (Charles, 2).  As of 2007, spending on buzz marketing was accelerating at such a fast pace, it was expected to triple by 2011 (Newman).

Buzz marketing is subject to the same government regulations as traditional marketing methods.  Nevertheless, with buzz marketing, information is disseminated through nontraditional channels (mostly people who may or may not be aware of the campaign), hence it may be difficult to apply regulations effectively.  It is therefore important to explore the additional controls that public and private agencies have created to address any lapses in consumer protection.

... except I'm not getting paid for it...
... except I'm not getting paid for it...
... pity.
... pity.

Existing Controls on Buzz Marketing

Many consumer advocacy groups, such as Consumer Alert, allege "that buzz marketers perpetrate "large scale deception" and should be investigated by the Federal Trade Commission" (Taylor).  The FTC responded to Consumer Alert's 2001 petition for investigation by stating "that it would not issue specific guidelines governing buzz marketing," but would instead "examine buzz marketing campaigns on a case-by-case basis to determine whether a campaign is deceptive and whether to take law enforcement action."  The FTC did provide guidelines on disclosure, saying that "when there is a connection between an endorser and a seller of an advertised product that might materially affect the weight or credibility of the endorsement, that connection should generally be disclosed" (Greenbaum).  Ultimately, there are no actual regulations, however if companies fail to adhere to these guidelines, they may be subject to FTC enforcement action.

The FTC may have no hard and fast rules, but it does monitor developing marketing trends and introduce new guidelines to address them.  In 2007, the FTC proposed additional guidelines "to address important consumer privacy concerns associated with online behavioral advertising" which "is the tracking of a consumer's activities online, including the searches the consumer has conducted, the Web pages visited, and the content viewed, in order to deliver advertising targeted to the consumer's interests" ("FTC Proposes Guidelines for Online Behavioral Advertising Privacy Practices," 29).    The major objective of these guidelines is to encourage marketers to utilize behavioral marketing with transparency and consent.  Behavioral and buzz marketing are different methods, but the FTC addresses them with the same regard, which is decidedly laissez-faire. 

Perhaps this approach will change with the Obama administration, which has generally taken a more involved approach to policy, however their most recent marketing-related move (the creation of the Interagency Working Group on Food Marketed to Children) seems to be in step with past practices, is it is slated to provide recommendations and not actual regulations. 

In direct contrast to the relaxed policy of the United States, the United Kingdom has taken more explicit regulatory actions regarding buzz marketing.  Starting May 26th of 2009, "it will become a criminal offense for brands to seed positive messages online without making the origin of the message clear" (Hall).  Those who fail to adhere to regulations will be subject to fines or even jail.

Though they may not be at the mercy of official regulations in the US, new marketing methods are subject to the self-regulatory measures imposed by private associations.  In January 2009, "the American Association of Advertising Agencies, the Association of National Advertisers, the Direct Marketing Association, the Interactive Advertising Bureau and the Council of BetterBusiness Bureaus, pledged to tackle privacy concerns over just how consumers' Web searching and surfing data is used by marketers," and have generally shown an active interest in controlling new marketing practices so that official regulations are unnecessary.  This latest action may be in reaction to the Obama administration's entrance on the political scene, which has generally been associated with greater government involvement.  The general hope amongst marketers is that creative freedom can be maintained so long as it is adequately controlled from within.

Buzz marketing is specifically controlled by the Word of Mouth Marketing Association (WOMMA).  Created in 2004, WOMMA has two primary purposes: to create common and uniform terms for buzz marketing tactics, and to impose a code of ethics regarding buzz marketing, so that government regulation need not be created.  WOMMA members agree to adhere to its Ethics Code, which is summarized with six main points:

  1. WOMMA members believe consumer protectoin and respect are paramount
  2. WOMMA members abide by the Honesty ROI: Relationship, Opinion, Identity
  3. We respect the rules of the venue
  4. WOMMA members manage relationships with minors resposibly
  5. We promote honest, downstream communication
  6. WOMMA members respect permission and protect privacy
        ("Ethics Review Process")

Because the realm buzz marketing is so broad, WOMMA's Ethics Code can be applied and interpreted in many different ways, which may lead to ambiguity and abuse of the method.  To counter potential shortfalls of WOMMA's code of ethics, various companies and individuals have created their own controls and codes of ethics to regulate their buzz marketing practices.

Will buzz marketing remain unregulated by the government? It depends.  If WOMMA manages to impose its code of ethics effectively, perhaps it is possible to avoid regulation.  WOMMA encourages companies to join, endorse its code of ethics, educate employees, and hold marketing agencies accountable.  Many corporations have done just that.  DuPont became the first Fortune 500 company to do this in April of 2006; since then nearly 40 have followed suit, including Coca Cola and Office Depot (Spangler).  This indicates that it may be possible for the industry to rely on self-regulation.  There are specific aspects of buzz marketing, however, that may ultimately need additional regulation.  They will be discussed below.

Specific Tactics and Their Respective Controls

Interactive Buzz Marketing
Buzz marketing campaigns are often interactive in nature. For example, firms have created interactive online worlds, online games, and online scavenger hunts related to the products they sell. On some occasions, companies have "tricked" consumers into interacting with their brands by launching spoof campaigns. In 2008, Absolut vodka launched online and printadvertisements promising a pill that would turn people into Kanye West for several hours. The mixture of New York subway advertisements, a YouTube informercial, a website, and a phone line bemused consumers and generated a hefty amount of buzz on popular blogs and forums (Quinton). These spoof campaigns confuse those exposed to them, encouraging involvement and engagement instead of dismissal. The question raised now is whether or not this tactic is misleading, as it tricks consumers into paying attention instead of promoting products and services in a straightforward manner.

Regulations for Interactive Buzz Marketing
WOMMA's code of ethics "forbids the use of stealth marketing and calls for honesty in all aspects of word-of-mouth" (Taylor). Interactive marketing involving spoof campaigns can possibly fall into this stealth marketing category, especially if the actual product's company is not mentioned in spoof campaign advertisements. For this reason, companies that utilize this tactic have taken care to subtly indicate their identity in these advertisements- usually at the very end of a commercial, or in the fine print of a printed ad. Does this disqualify these companies from the "stealth" label? Such deliberation is open to discussion.

Buzz Marketing and Mobile Devices

"There are already more mobile phones in use worldwide than televisions and computers put together" (Nylund). This being the case, mobile phones are very important channels for marketers to consider, especially because "these recessionary times may actually furnish us with reasons to accelerate the shift to mobile than to freeze investment in it" (The Future's Close at Hand). With the growing popularity of Internet-integrated phone plans, mobile marketing is booming. Even companies revolving around highly private, secure information, such as banks, are involved in mobile campaigns and programs.

The primary concern with mobile advertising is that it will provide a new form of junk mail for consumers- filling phones with unwanted phone and text messages just as in-boxes are filled with spam and mailboxes with leaflets. Many companies, however, are shying away from phones as advertising mediums, and instead viewing them as inexpensive service channels that will improve brand loyalty. "That's not to say mobile advertising will play no part, but that mobile, like most things digital, is not a channel so much as a way consumers live their lives and, consequently, a way marketers have to conduct their business." (Chang) With this being the case, perhaps mobile advertising will take a back seat to services, and additional government regulation will not be needed.

Regulations for Buzz Marketing via Mobile Devices
Legislation regulating buzz marketing via mobile devices mostly pertains to opt out options (Pry). This means that companies cannot send mobile updates to their customers (either in email, call, or text form) without consent. When it comes to buzz marketing these controls are moot as it is something that the consumer is only exposed to through friends or chooses to participate in independently. Under current legislation, one cannot "opt out" of getting texts from friends raving about a product they have been paid to promote, for example. Perhaps in the future, laws will be created that prevent buzz marketers from utilizing employees' social networks to spread news about a product.

Buzz Marketing and Product Placement In Mainstream Media
Product placement in books, television, and film is no new development, however product placement in blogs and other personal publications is on the rise, and proper etiquette for the practice has yet to be clearly established. Public outrage involving product placement in books has led to boycotts, however there seems to be no regulation stopping the practice from happening (Lanzendorfer). The news media in particular is experiencing an increasing amount of product placement. A recent study on the influence of corporate PR and marketing on national and local news media found that journalists are becoming increasingly reliant on marketing-based information, which shapes public perception in favor of businesses' strategy. "A political economy analysis suggests factors which have created this editorial reliance on these 'information subsidies' seems set to continue, if not increase, in the near future (Justin Lewis Et Al., 1). This growing reliance jeopardizes the media's legitimacy.

Regulations for Buzz Marketing via Product Placement In Mainstream Media
Some companies in mainstream media have responded to complaints about unfair marketing manipulation by adopting a policy of great transparency. Washington state newspaper, for example, has created the Transparent Newsroom Initiative, which "includes webcasts from behind-the-scenes editorial meetings" (Fernando). Marketers are also encouraged to disclose their identity in advertisements, however the way in which their identities are revealed may still lead to confusion regarding the unbiased legitimacy of the source. Given these facts, buzz marketing and product placement in the media may be a prime target for future legislation.

Buzz Marketing and Product Placement Online
The current "proliferation of dynamic, consumer-generated media" has left marketers with less control than they had with "their legacy one-way, paid mass communications" (Neiderhoffer). With the rise of online media, many bloggers have become significant opinion leaders in various product categories. In an effort to take back control, some businesses have dabbled with buzz marketing by paying bloggers to talk about their products.

In some cases, entire flogs (fake blogs) have been created by marketers. Edelman , a PR company, created the blog called Working Families for Wal-Mart that appeared to be written by two normal Americans. When an online trail connected the bloggers (one of which was discovered to be a photojournalist) back to Wal-Mart, readers were scandalized (Fernando).

Furthermore, because "there is growing evidence that consumers are influenced by Internet-based opinion forums before making a variety of purchase decisions," companies have begun posting positive comments on their products anonymously (Dellarocas, 1577). Though companies would benefit from initiating filters and controls to prevent this from happening, little action has been taken.

Regulations for Buzz Marketing via Product Placement Online
WOMMA "outlines its ethical guidelines as falling into three buckets: honesty of relationship, honesty of opinion, and honesty of identity. These guidelines are designed to protect consumers" (Fernando). One might wonder where this code of ethics came into play when Edelman decided to fabricate its Working Families for Wal-Mart blog (and another blog called Paid Critics). After all, Edelman publicly boasted its transparency and trustworthiness- yet they clearly violated WOMMA's code, which calls for marketers to "practice openness about the relationship between consumers, advocates and marketers" (Fernando). Perhaps this indicates that firms cannot be trusted to conform to self-imposed buzz marketing regulations.

As a reaction to the discrepancies between buzz marketers and their ethics codes, many bloggers are establishing their own codes of ethics, asserting that they will not adulterate their work with information they have been paid or otherwise encouraged to inject into their work. A-list blogger Jeff Jarvis , for example, has posted the following statements on his blog :

  • No one can buy my editorial voice or opinion.
  • No one can buy my editorial space; if it's an ad, it will clearly be an ad.
  • No one should be confused about the source of anything on my pages
  • I will disclose my business relationships whenever it is relevant and possible


Unfortunately, bloggers such as Jeff Jarvis may be the exception, not the rule. When Ivan Oransky interviewed diabetes bloggers for the Lancet medical journal, he found that "the prevailing view in the blogosphere seems to be that as long as the money comes without any strings attached, it's OK to accept it. And disclosure is not universal" (1641). Because blogging is so informal and decentralized in nature, it is difficult to ensure that all write in accordance with a single code of ethics, especially when that code of ethics is not well known.

Despite difficulty of ethics enforcement, there is still hope for future online transparency. Marketers may occasionally behave unethically online by utilizing buzz tactics without disclosing their motives, however "an army of Web sleuths have already proven adept at outing charlatans" and have uncovered countless shady buzz campaigns, from the Wal-Mart blog to a 2007 Sony campaign (Kirby). The Internet may be too informal and decentralized to regulate, but it does self-police- at least to a certain extent.

Buzz Marketing Targeting Children
Growing concern regarding buzz marketing to teens and children does no go unjustified. Studies show that young adults (age 18 to 30) are more strongly influenced by TV commercials and magazine ads put together (Creamer). Youngsters' susceptibility to traditional ad campaigns combined with an age-related desire to conform with social norms and aspirational reference groups makes them prime targets for new marketing methods, especially buzz and interactive marketing.

Buzz marketing programs aimed at children specifically certainly do exist. Take Tremor for example- its is a division of Procter & Gamble "that helps companies promote products online to 250,000 teens" (Hofman). Concerns about buzz marketing to children revolve mostly around targets' inability to understand where the information is coming from and potential adverse impacts on health. Indeed, many food brands that are marketed to children have launched interactive sites where children can play games that immerse them with the product's brand icons, leading to positive imprinting and brand loyalty development. Parents and policymakers alike are concerned that such marketing tactics will contribute to childhood obesity and other health-related problems.

Regulations for Buzz Marketing Targeting Children
It is important to note that the United States government has created legislation protecting children from online interactive marketing. The Children's Online Privacy Protection Act of 1998 requires websites that cater to consumers under the age of 13 or have the potential to gather information from children must have a privacy policy and request parental consent before granting access ("Children's Online Privacy Protection Act of 1998"). Furthermore, Section D, page 39 of the Financial Services and General Government Appropriations section of the 2009 omnibus spending bill signed by President Barack Obama has "created something called the Interagency Working Group on Food Marketed to Children" which may propose additional legislation controlling new marketing methods used on teens (not just children anymore)- at least with regard to food ("Fed: Leave Them Teens Alone"). Nevertheless, the group's primary task is supposedly to make recommendations, not law, so it appears to remain in step with the current government tradition encouraging self-regulation.

Even if they were more concrete and enforceable, these government actions might not protect minors from more modern marketing techniques as marketing information need not come from a given site, but rather from peers and other informal sources. With regard to buzz marketing, WOMMA's code of ethics stands against including "children under the age of 13 in any word of mouth marketing program" (Hofman). So long as companies comply with this principle (which remains to be seen), buzz marketing may not be a problem with young children, though teens will still be exposed. Teens' current lack of both formal and informal protection may make them a primary target for regulatory subject matter in the future.

To Conclude...

Though there is some government regulation controlling new advertising tactics such as buzz marketing, most of the existing regulations are self-imposed, either by individuals, companies, agencies, or associations (such as WOMMA).  As the buzz marketing industry is still getting on its feet, it might be too early to tell whether companies can be trusted to police themselves.  Until WOMMA gets more clout in the marketing world, self-regulation will be highly decentralized, with individual firms and agencies creating their own policies and the FTC evaluating practices on a case-by-case basis.  Marketers may push boundaries occasionally, but ultimately they are keeping careful tabs on what the government is doing in an attempt to preempt its regulations with self-policing policies.  The ultimate goal of the marketing community is to take care of itself, so that it needn't be controlled by the government.
Ultimately, the case for self-regulation is strong.  Businesses will benefit from policing themselves, as they can avoid cumbersome legislation.  The government will benefit as policymakers can focus on more pressing issues.  The buzz marketing industry in particular has the most to gain from internally established guidelines.  What makes buzz marketing so powerful is that information is passed onto the consumer through his or her most trusted peers and associates.  If buzz marketing were to go unregulated, peoples' trust in others' recommendations and opinions would decrease, and buzz marketing would cease to be effective.  It is therefore essential that transparency be maintained so that the method may continue to be useful and legitimate.

Works Cited

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Charles, Gemma. "'Buzz' finds favour in the UK." Marketing (00253650) (27 Feb. 2008): 2-2.Business Source Premier. EBSCO. Gelman Library, Washington, DC. 18 Apr. 2009 <>.

"Children's Online Privacy Protection Act of 1998." Federal Trade Commission. 27 Apr. 2009 <>

Creamer, Matthew. "In era of consumer control, marketers crave the potency of word-of-mouth." Advertising Age 76.48 (28 Nov. 2005): 32-32. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Gelman Library, Washington, DC. 18 Apr. 2009 <>.

Dellarocas, Chrysanthos. "Strategic Manipulation of Internet Opinion Forums: Implications for Consumers and Firms." Management Science 52.10 (Oct. 2006): 1577-1593. Business Source Premier. EBSCO. Gelman Library, Washington, DC. 18 Apr. 2009 <>.

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    • Peter Allison profile image

      Peter Allison 

      11 years ago from Alameda, CA

      Kudos on an amazingly well researched and thoughtful hub. This is high quality stuff! I'm reminded of the documentary "The Corporation" which briefly touched on this topic in its nascent stages in the section they called "Perception Management". At the time (2003) the filmmakers were scandalized by the concept - which we now take for granted. If anything, ubiquitous advertising and the transparent teaming up of media, business and political orgs have left this skeptic more jaded than ever before. Joe the Plumber anyone? I don't see how govt can truly, effectively regulate am industry they are already snugly in bed with. However, I must say, I love how grassroots movements, artists, bloggers etc continually go outside the boundaries of traditional media and promote their missions in creative ways.


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