Like everybody else in America, Sam Ewen gets sick of marketing. "I grew up in a household that was very critical of advertising," he says. This is interesting only because of who Ewen is. We're talking in the room where his 14-person company, Interference Inc., stores the props, costumes, and supplies used in its various street-theater promotional efforts. A table is strewn with garments to be used as part of a stunt in Times Square that Interference has devised for its client. That is to say, Ewen is a marketer.
Specifically, he is a "nontraditional" (or alternative, or guerrilla, or whatever you want to call it) marketer. When Ewen, now 39, founded Interference eight years ago, he says, corporations didn't have a budget line item for branding efforts that didn't fit into long-standing categories like television, print, or billboards. But today, practically everybody agrees that there's value in marketing forms that consumers can't click away from. According to PQ Media, "alternative media" accounted for 16% of all marketing expenditures in 2007, double the figure in 2002.
Yet these efforts can boomerang, annoying potential customers and attracting the ire of consumer watchdogs or the media. Remember the Sony Ericsson "stealth" campaign that deployed actors to pose as tourists asking strangers to take their picture with a newfangled camera phone? It ended up in an alarmist report on 60 Minutes. Interference was part of that effort. Then there was the time Boston was shut down by fear of flashing devices that authorities thought might have been the work of terrorists, but were actually just ad pieces (albeit illegally placed) promoting a movie. This, too, was Interference's work.
Experience with such disruptive, if attention-getting, efforts makes Ewen the ideal person to address the most confounding issue about his business: Every new tactic for breaking through marketing clutter contributes to marketing clutter, which raises the stakes on innovating new tactics -- which adds to the clutter. And Ewen stands apart from his peers for more than his notoriety. Unlike many alt marketers, he talks about working in concert with traditional advertising, not destroying it, and he puts his work in the context of figures like Edward Bernays, a founder of the public-relations field more often named-dropped by cultural historians than by ad pros. Plus, Ewen's father, Stuart, is a professor at Hunter College and City University of New York whose scholarship has been highly critical of the commercial persuasion industry.
So here we are, talking about marketing in a marketing-soaked culture. "I actually look at a lot of traditional advertising," Ewen says, "and so much of it is sold on a promise of what kind of person those tires -- or whatever -- are going to make you be. Not about what those tires do." Products sold by suggesting that they will make you rich and sexy, "all of that stuff is bullshit," he continues. And then he says something that anybody familiar with the fake Sony Ericsson tourists or the Boston fiasco is probably going to find hard to swallow: "I believe that the new killer app in advertising is honesty."
If it's surprising that a huge company like GE, not exactly known for wild risk taking, is working with Interference, it may be even more surprising to learn that the stunt that Ewen was preparing for when we met was on behalf of ... a washing machine. Usually, the tactics associated with guerrilla marketing get deployed on behalf of alcohol, energy drinks, movies -- trendy stuff for younger consumers. Not appliances. "A lot of people would look at that and say, 'That's not terribly sexy,' " Ewen concedes.
But Interference essentially bills itself as being able to engage consumer groups appropriate to any product. The primary attraction of the GE Profile front-load washer/dryer, says Paul Klein, general manager for brand and advertising for the company's industrial and consumer division, is SmartDispense technology; basically, you can load it with an entire bottle of detergent, punch in various settings (whether your water is hard or soft, and so on), and the machine doles out the correct amount for each load. This combination of convenience and efficiency, plus snazzy design, will run you $3,500. "It's a huge launch," Klein continues. Ad agency BBDO devised the regular-media campaign for parenting magazines and the like, and television commercials and online ads. But Klein also wanted something on the street to generate publicity and buzz. "I'm always looking" for something different, he says; to reach the ad-inundated consumer, "you've got to be."
Ewen's plan involved 800 feet of clothesline along several blocks of Times Square, hung with garments and representing six months of washing that the new machine can supposedly handle before you have to put in more detergent -- a look "kind of like Christo," in Klein's words. Ewen also promised a 20-foot-high inflatable representation of the washer and dryer to plant on one of the traffic islands. PR firm Edelman would round up a "celebrity mom" (Alison Sweeney of Days of Our Lives signed on) to lead a live auction of jeans donated by assorted stars to benefit the Clothes Off Our Back Foundation. Interference would deploy a few dozen reps to chat up pedestrians about the product and hand out canvas bags stuffed with freebies.
Does this kind of thing really sell $3,500 appliances? Ewen, of course, says yes, although with a number of qualifiers, one of which was a surprise coming from an alternative-marketing guy. "You read in the Ad Ages of the world about, Is the 30-second spot dead? Is print advertising dead? I think it's a misguided argument." Much better, he argues, to win attention through a "hybrid" model, combining the reach of mass media with the "engagement" of street efforts. However, he is quick to add that the latter category has gotten more important than ever.
"Is the 30-second spot dead? I think it's a misguided argument," says Ewen.
One of the first electric signs in Manhattan, more than 100 years ago, was an ad. Six stories high, with 1,200 bulbs, it stood at the corner of 23rd Street and Fifth Avenue; under a 40-foot-long representation of apickle, it said: 57 GOOD THINGS FOR THE TABLE. Commercial persuasion has long been a feature of the public sphere, not just the media. Ewen himself made this point in a talk this year at the School of Visual Arts in New York, noting such stunts as the Lucky Strike Easter Parade, organized by Edward Bernays, in 1929. This linked Luckies -- reconceptualized as "torches of freedom" -- with feminism, in an ersatz street demonstration intended to expand the brand's female customer base.
Ewen says he brings up Bernays's definition of propaganda in every client pitch: "the establishing of reciprocal understanding between an individual and a group." In Ewen's case, that "understanding" is between his client and the consumer masses, and it's being established "all over the place." Interference, he told his audience at SVA, is in the business of creating what media theorist Douglas Rushkoff calls "social currency." We need "images, stories, ideas" to connect, Ewen said, and this is what he is trying to create: social currency that happens to be associated with a brand. A client's brand.
Promotions consisting of a guy in an oversize T-shirt handing out flyers, Ewen says, result in litter, not social currency. For the SmartDispense stunt, reps wore T-shirts with a sock sewn on the back, as if stuck there by static cling (relevant to product; attention-getting). The giveaways included bottles of water and coloring books shaped like the appliance's door (useful; tied in to product design). And the celebrity-pants auction created a little spectacle -- giving witnesses "some social currency that they can then tell their friends about."
Some of Ewen's young colleagues showed me footage of past campaigns. A professionally choreographed dance routine in San Francisco's Union Square on behalf of . Actors in Robin Hood costumes buying people coffee in Philadelphia to promote a show on BBC America, and an actual wedding performed in New York's Diamond District as part of a promotion for iVillage. They talked about the satisfaction of "getting the consumer to stop and have an experience with you.". Men and women in bathing suits, climbing down from lifeguard stands scattered around Manhattan, talking up the Discovery Channel's Shark Week
All this raises issues that Ewen has been hearing about, it's safe to say, for pretty much his entire life.
Ewen grew up on the Upper West Side in the 1970s and 1980s (when "it wasn't the mall it is today," he says). He was considering a career as a music producer and was deejaying on the side when he encountered what appeared to be a street protest. Only it wasn't. The marchers who showed up at the industry event were carrying signs announcing the launch of Bad Boy Records. It was a publicity stunt -- and it made an impression.
The mechanics of persuasion and advertising had been a subject of dinner-table conversation going back to his childhood. Both of his parents are historians whose work has dealt with media culture. I was particularly curious what his father made of Sam's chosen profession. After all, the senior Ewen's books -- Captains of Consciousness, All-Consuming Images and PR! A Social History of Spin among them -- are not exactly paeans to the ad game.
The obvious common ground between father and son is a fascination with the raw mechanics of persuasion. Both are also interested in fringe and subversive ("unofficial") expression -- street art, for instance -- and its potent power. Stuart says his "ambivalence" about marketing is less acute in his alt-marketer son's case, because Sam identifies with creative outsiders.
But what does Stuart make of it when a creative-outsider form such as street art is repurposed into slapping Le Tigre logos all over other companies' outdoor advertising, as an early Sam campaign did? "I think it sucks," he concedes. "But I also know it's always happened."
It should be noted that Ewen the professor has dabbled in publicity: He edited one of the first underground newspapers and creates graphics under the pseudonym Archie Bishop. His son's far bigger and more-complicated campaigns "walk the border," he says, bringing up the Boston campaign to promote the movie version of the Cartoon Network series Aqua Teen Hunger Force. Placing flashing light boxes around that city, in an "extra legal" manner, he suggests, used a "kind of creative mischief" to question who, exactly, controls public space. Boston authorities, he concludes, "decided to process it as an assault on public order" and created a crisis out of nothing.
It's an interesting critique. Then again, it wasn't social activists deploying "creative mischief" to raise questions. It was his son using creative mischief to sell movie tickets for the Turner corporate machine. That distinction matters -- doesn't it?
Sam Ewen knows perfectly well that when he talks about honesty, some will react with skepticism. But here, he says, is what he means. The Webby world is a more skeptical and connected place, where consumers are harder to dupe with the aspirational ads of the past. "This, to me, says to business: That's more reason to focus on your product, and have your product be what it needs to be -- and then give people ways to experience that product, to touch it, to see it, to talk about it." By, for example, getting Sony Ericsson phones into people's hands, or by turning Times Square into an open-air, immersive, and effectively unavoidable ad for GE products. Unlike most advertising, he says, it does not tell the consumer what to desire, but rather causes the consumer to generate his or her own desire. (After the event on August 26, GE's Klein told me it and an online promotion attracted more than 150,000 entrants to a washer/dryer giveaway contest.)
The best promotions, he continues, create delight in those who encounter them. People laugh and take pictures. Consider the event for a show about cavemen on the Discovery Channel. Ewen wondered, What would it look like if cavemen walked the streets today? His clients said: Go with that. "There's a lot of fun," he says. "Where do I buy $10,000 worth of remaindered animal pelts that I can turn into caveman costumes?" Not to mention finding the right prosthetics maker, training the promo people to communicate with gestures, and deploying them on subways and sidewalks and in upscale grocer Dean & DeLuca.
"We don't want advertising everywhere," he had said to me early on, but when I remind him of that, he puts the responsibility on city governments, which, he suggests, should have clearer and more consistent permitting rules. As for guys like him, "If I'm annoying people on behalf of a brand, then I'm not doing my job," he says. "You're not going to be able to avoid some people getting upset" -- mostly the "Ralph Naders of the world," or journalists like me. "But on the flip side," he continues, "you can create experiences that are positive enough, interesting enough, compelling enough that the overwhelming majority of people who are there appreciate it, and take it for what it is."
Later, Ewen sent me an email about aad he'd seen with his 6-year-old daughter while watching the Olympics. His daughter loved the spot, featuring two college-age women dancing adorably to a catchy song. He searched for the song on YouTube, but the video that came up bordered (in his view) on soft-core porn.
Here, then, it seemed was an example of marketing that annoyed him as a consumer. I tried to pursue the societal-fallout angle with him. Had the advertiser put him in an awkward position and irritated him as the parent of a young girl? But Ewen seemed much more engaged in the brand fallout: "What does that say about the brand, especially a family brand like Target?" Should the retailer's marketers have examined this contingency and thought twice about how a disgruntled parent might react? He wasn't disingenuously deflecting criticism. After all, he'd had nothing to do with this ad, and he'd brought it to my attention.
I finally realized he was not being evasive about the big picture; he is just really, authentically, engaged with the puzzle of brand meaning. Sure, he's the subculture sponge his father admires, scouring the fringes for creative ideas. But his personal creative payoff is figuring out how to deploy such expression on behalf of a brand.
The answers that Ewen had been giving me all along weren't slick evasions. They were perfectly honest. Sure, all that marketing clutter is annoying and makes it harder for any given branding idea to break through. But to Ewen, that's not really a downside of being a part of the marketing business. That's precisely what he loves about it.
Rob Walker's new book, Buying In: The Secret Dialogue Between What We Buy and Who We Are, was excerpted in the June issue of Fast Company.