McDonald's Corp. (MCD ) wanted to rev up its breakfast business in Chicago. So it tried TV and radio spots and local newspaper ads. But guess what move gave the company's marketers the biggest bang for their buck? A single billboard in a parking lot across the street from Wrigley Field. The sign was a specially engineered sundial that highlighted different breakfast items with a golden arches shadow as the hours of the morning progressed.
Almost immediately after the billboard went up on July 11, it was a hot item online. Once Leo Burnett Worldwide Inc.'s public relations department placed a photo of it with Chicagobusiness.com, a regional business site, the picture was sent all over the Internet. Soon blogs ranging from adrants.com to gizmodo.com, which focuses on gadgets, were discussing it. In two weeks, the photo was visited 105,000 times on the Chicagobusiness.com site alone.
These stunts are "like dressing yourself up in a clown outfit, handing out cameras, and then saying 'comment on me,"' says Rishad Tobaccowala, chief executive of Denuo, the media buying unit of Publicis Groupe (PUB ) specializing in new media.
Clearly, marketers are seeing this as the Golden Age of the street corner gimmick. With a clever idea and a few thousand dollars, brand managers are able to harness the power of blogs, video, and photo-sharing sites like YouTube and Flickr, thanks to the millions of people roaming the streets with camera phones. The result: Street stunts captured in pixels are becoming an engaging form of brand advertising online. From the sundial billboard to a manhole cover dressed up as a steaming cup of coffee to promote Folgers, such moves can create "greater exposure and commentary" than traditional media advertising, says Rob Jackson, director of marketing for McDonald's (MCD ) in the greater Chicago region. "The [PR] return on investment is extraordinary."
THE ONLINE ADVANTAGE
The stunt's life in terra firma is often far more fleeting than its life online. When Procter & Gamble Co. (PG ) hired Saatchi & Saatchi Worldwide Inc. to promote its Folgers brand last March, the agency came up with the idea of placing a vinyl cover over a steam-spewing manhole in New York City, making it look as if there were a piping-hot cup of coffee embedded in the street. Although the one coffee cover was only in place for a few hours, photos of it ricocheted around advertising and New York-themed blogs, eventually scoring an appearance in the New York Post in May. "It works better as a photo," admits Folgers brand manager Ed Bello, especially since the team couldn't get permission from New York for any larger-scale plan (the smell from a manhole isn't appetizing, either). The McDonald's sundial has similar problems in the physical world. It only actually works for six hours, and the engineering requirements to light it make any widespread rollout unfeasible.
Just the same, life online can be hard to control. Court TV learned that lesson when it decided to link mysterious billboards in New York and Los Angeles in August with a fictitious blog to promote the show Parco, P.I. The billboards were made to look as though they were purchased by a crazed wife, Emily, who calls out her cheating husband. Court TV marketing manager Marc Juris says the plan was to pique people's curiosity for a few weeks before Court TV revealed that the billboards were connected to the show. For those who searched online, they'd find a blog, ostensibly written by the wrathful wife.
But Net surfers were too fast: Suspicious bloggers discovered Court TV was behind the blog within three days of the billboards going up. With its cover blown, the channel had to rapidly rethink how to manage the two weeks before the show's premiere, and rejigger blog posts and ads that assumed the trick would remain secret. It was a lot of unexpected scrambling, but Juris was not disappointed. Court TV got more than 2 million hits to the Emily blog from 600,000 different users. Juris says Court TV should have had an inkling about the speed at which folks would respond. "Right as the billboard on Houston Street [in New York] was going up," says Juris, "the creative director saw a guy standing next to him with a video camera saying 'wow!"'
By Burt Helm and Joseph Pisani