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Jewish World Review August 8, 2002 / 30 Menachem-Av, 5762

Lenore Skenazy

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Consumer Reports

Can't trust those tourists! | NEW YORK They may look carefree, but they are here on a mission. Infiltrating. Blending in. Bent on destroying the very fabric of American life.

Terrorists? Nope. Tourists.

Fake ones, that is, unleashed by Sony Ericsson. You'll find them at the Empire State Building, Times Square and other top sightseeing stops, looking dorky and asking strangers to please take their picture.

Do they really want a snapshot of themselves? Not at all. Do they want us to try the new Sony T68i camera/cell phone (a vital gadget if ever there was one)?

You bet. That's the whole point. They're shills. Welcome to the brave new world of covert marketing.

Yes, it's really called that.

"Fake tourists and leaners are [just] part of a bigger campaign," explains Nicki Csellak-Claeys, head of strategic marketing for North American Sony Ericsson.


Apparently, leaners have been around for at least a decade: attractive people paid by a company to "lean" into the crowd at a bar and order a particular product. "Don't you love the new vodka, X?" a leaner will enthuse. "It's triple-filtered so you don't get a hangover. Bartender! How about a round of triple-filtered X for my new friends?"

Sony's leaners will be puttering with the camera/phone in popular bars, chatting it up with anyone duped by their prepaid, professionally scripted, fake-as-silicone spontaneity. To desperate corporations, this seems like a great idea.

Who cares if it means we can't trust any human interactions anymore?

"This is what I call reality stuff," says John Palumbo, president of DVC Experiential Marketing, a firm specializing in covert campaigns.

By "reality," Palumbo means using real people to create unreal situations. For instance, he hires groups of real friends to go into a restaurant, order a certain liquor and keep the bottle on the table all night, as a visual ad.

He also has hired people to whip out a particular electronic device on the subway, to make it look popular. In Chicago, he paid a bunch of people to ride the trains, pretending to read a new magazine. And when he was hired by a catalogue company, he came up with his cleverest idea yet:

He took the company's boxes to doormen all over New York and paid them 10 bucks each to keep a box in plain view, as if a resident had ordered an item from the catalogue and had yet to pick it up.

"It reinforced the idea that, 'People in my building are buying from that place,'" says Palumbo.

Even though they weren't. Whoa.

"It is impossible to be too cynical about marketing right now," concedes Scott Donaton, editor of Advertising Age. With channel-surfing, ad clutter and new technologies that edit out TV spots, "marketers are afraid [traditional] media advertising is not going to be as effective as it's been. So they're looking at sneak attacks and pretending something is grass roots. Everything is marketing."

There's only one problem with this approach, of course. When everything can be faked - from tourists to friendship to catalogue purchases - we can't believe in anything anymore.

Anything, that is, except the desire to boycott these sleazy marketers until they swear off shills and go back to lying the old-fashioned way - in ads.

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JWR contributor Lenore Skenazy is a columnist for The New York Daily News. Comment by clicking here.


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© 2002, New York Daily News