October 31st, 2005
New Buzz Tactic: Manipulating Teens
By Jeff Gelles
Remember the New Yorker cartoon of a dog sitting at a computer? The caption reads: “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.”
I had it in mind recently when I posed as the family cat to sneak my way onto www.tremor.com, a Procter & Gamble Web site that has enlisted a quarter-million teenagers as “word-of-mouth” marketers.
Our dog wouldn’t do - Tremor turns away anyone who admits being under 13. Nor could I pose honestly as a concerned father, since over-20s draw a similar rejection.
But “Abby Gelles” can prove she’s 16, as well as up-to-date on her rabies vaccines.
Why the ruse? I consider it tit for tat.
Tremor is part of a burgeoning trend in marketing: using “real people” to create a buzz for products and services. But teens who join the Tremor Crew aren’t required to acknowledge the gig to anybody - even to their own parents.
Tremor and other such marketers are under scrutiny because of a complaint by Commercial Alert, a Portland, Ore., group that says some of their tactics may violate laws against deceptive advertising. Commercial Alert has called on the Federal Trade Commission to investigate such practices.
I don’t know how the FTC will rule, and I’m willing to believe that some word-of-mouth marketing strategies are honest and above board.
But in honor of Halloween, I’ll also say this: There’s something truly creepy about the notion of marketers manipulating what ordinary people say to one another. As a parent, I’m especially concerned when the targets are teenagers like my daughters - which is why I decided to take a look inside Tremor.
So what exactly is Tremor? Put aside such scruples, and it’s easy to be impressed. P&G has carefully chosen a quarter-million teenagers whom it expects to spread the word about its clients’ products.
Tremor teens aren’t told what to say about them. Nor are they paid - if you don’t count coupons, discounts, free downloads and product samples, or the status that some may get from being trendsetters.
Behind the members-only gateway, the main surprise at Tremor’s Web site should probably be no surprise at all: the usual online smarminess, as teenagers from across the country have a chance to “hook up” and see messages with titles such as “Single or not?” or “Favorite sexual positions.”
But Tremor’s underlying purpose is plain before you get that far. If you check it out yourself or with your teen, remember to adopt the right persona. You’ll be turned away if you give the wrong answers to such questions as, “What do you typically do when you find something new that you like?”
Tremor’s goal is to find teens who are “connectors,” chiefly because of their large social networks and a knack for persuading others to follow their lead.
It sets a high bar: A connector’s instant-message buddy list will likely have 150 to 200 names, says spokeswoman Robin Schroeder.
About 15 percent of Tremor wannabes are initially invited to join. But nearly half of those don’t make the final cut, because Tremor continues to watch to make sure their actual behavior measures up.
Tremor members are constantly asked for their opinions and assured that they matter. One e-mail, for instance, offers a synopsis of a proposed movie and a chance to respond. “The next movie you watch might be the one you gave us feedback on. Sounds pretty good, huh?”
More important, no doubt, are the Tremor “programs” that expose them to new products through samples or coupons.
Tremor offers a marketer’s dream: a large pool of well-connected teenagers, influential among their peers, who will talk up the products and services of its clients.
Big companies use Tremor - 80 percent of its work comes from outside P&G - but the company won’t identify them. The Tremor Crew knows, though. The members-only Web site lists more than two dozen, including Dreamworks, Toyota and Coca-Cola.
Last fall, ABC showed sneak previews of Lost to the Tremor Crew, the site says. “You obviously talked it up with your friends! As a result, ‘Lost’ has become ABC’s hottest new show and scored a record-breaking premiere audience.”
Schroeder says there’s nothing sneaky about Tremor’s approach, even if the teens keep quiet about their marketing role.
“We encourage them to talk freely, whether positively or negatively. We do not give them a script,” she says. “We want to be very transparent.”
The trouble is, for those of us on the receiving end, manufactured buzz only makes the world a little more opaque.
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