The Good, Bad and Ugly of Covert Marketing - Ideas for Leaders
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The Good, Bad and Ugly of Covert Marketing

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With traditional marketing losing its impact in today’s overcrowded marketplaces, marketers are developing creative covert campaigns to create buzz around their products. Sometimes, however, these covert campaigns can backfire. 


The steadily declining effectiveness of traditional marketing approaches — from advertising to direct mail in the mailbox to email blasts — has been well-documented. Traditional marketing is too often equated with ‘junk mail’ or ‘spam,’ or annoyingly long commercial breaks that take you away from your favourite TV program.

As explained in a recent article by Rutgers University researcher, Can Uslay, some companies are finding new and creative ways to market ‘covertly’ — that is to engage with the customer without them knowing that they are watching an advertising initiative. A common and rather benign example of covert marketing is working with film companies to get your product prominently ‘placed’ in the action.

A more imaginative covert marketing campaign was launched after the biggest art theft in Swiss history, when thieves made off with $165 million worth of art from a museum in Zurich. The haul included a $90 million Cezanne called ‘The boy in the red vest.’ Suddenly, a video appeared on YouTube in which two masked men were shown hanging the painting on a wall. The press and public speculated on why the thieves would post the video, which quickly went viral, until the unveiling of what really happened: the masked men were two advertisers for a poster shop that sold genuine-looking replicas of famous paintings! The campaign, for what became the most famous poster shop in Switzerland, was recognized with numerous awards.

This example captures the essence of covert marketing. At first, the campaign is disguised: viewers of the viral Cezanne poster video did not know they were watching an advertisement. Then, once the campaign has garnered the maximum attention, there is a ‘reveal,’ which in itself ramps up the attention on the campaign. Finally, covert marketing can be accomplished with just a fraction of the cost of traditional marketing: how much did it cost the poster shop to create their Cezanne video?

All of this exemplifies the good of covert marketing. However, according to Uslay, there are also bad and ugly sides to covert marketing that companies should avoid. 

The bad side of covert marketing is when incognito marketing crosses into shady ethical actions. Incognito marketing is marketing that is never revealed to the public — i.e. the public never learns that it viewed an advertising initiative. Product placement in movies is a common an innocuous example; in fact, it is barely incognito since most movie and television viewers are aware of the practice.

However, people may not be aware that McDonald’s pays $5 any time a song that mentions Big Mac is played; thus, a seemingly artistic reference to pop culture is simply a commercial transaction. 

Social media is especially vulnerable to unethical incognito marketing (also called ‘social media astroturfing’). An obvious example involves fake user reviews. Planted positive reviews allow a restaurant or any other type of service business to spread a misleading picture of customer satisfaction. Or, on the contrary, a company might plant negative reviews about a competitor to hurt the competitor’s reputation. 

Companies are not always successful in keeping their ethically challenging incognito marketing incognito. For Uslay, unethical incognito marketing that is exposed to the public is the ugly side of covert marketing. Sony’s reputation was tarnished when it was revealed that it used fictitious movie critics to praise its new releases. (Sony also had to fire two executives.) Samsung was found guilty for hiring students to write fake positive reviews about its products and to bash the products of competitors. 


Covert marketing represents a new and innovative approach to overcome the deafening ‘noise’ in the marketplace that severely defuses the impact of traditional advertising. However, covert marketing also requires walking a fine line to ensure that creative subterfuge does not tumble into deceit. 

Uslay offers some advice for companies attempting to walk this fine line.

  1. Timing of the reveal is vital. (The Cezanne poster advertisers could have gotten into trouble had they held on to their secret for too long.) Use focus groups and other means to pre-test unveiled marketing campaigns to find the optimal timing for the unveiling. 
  2. Choose the choice of media for the unveiling for maximum impact. For example, hidden cameras recorded the terrified reactions of a car dealer in the Pepsi Max sponsored Jeff Gordon prank, which were then posted on YouTube. 
  3. The more the product or brand is integrated in the storyline, the better. The poster shop video is a perfect example: the poster shop deals specifically in posters that look like famous paintings… even stolen ones.

The bottom line: if revealing the covert marketing campaign could prove either embarrassing or might lead to legal problems, then the campaign idea should be rejected. The best covert marketing campaigns are the ones that lead to nods and smiles of appreciation from the public (which on social media take the form of likes and shares)… and perhaps even advertising awards.



The Good, Bad, and Ugly Side of Entrepreneurial Marketing: Is Your Social Media Campaign Unveiled, Incognito, or Exposed. Can Uslay. Rutgers Business Review (Autumn 2017). 

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Idea conceived

October 6, 2017

Idea posted

Mar 2018
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