Stealth marketing — is it an innocent tactic that helps attract attention, or a sly and unwelcome strategy that consumers are not particularly fond of?  We wanted to break down stealth marketing, assess its classic and contemporary uses and let you judge for yourself whether or not it’s an ethical practice. Throughout history and alongside the evolution of technology, stealth marketing has gone through many iterations, with new approaches being employed as consumers’ attention has shifted from classical media to social media and beyond.

What is stealth marketing?

Stealth marketing is exactly what it sounds like. It’s a strategy that marketers use to advertise their products or services to an audience without the audience knowing that they’re being marketed to. One of the most typical and recognizable examples of the strategy is product placement — classically in movies and TV; contemporarily in things like YouTube videos, podcasts, and social media content. But it doesn’t stop there! Fake viral videos; undisclosed, paid advertising with influencers; intentionally generated media buzz; hired actors to persuade the public — these are all things that companies have used in the past as part of a stealth marketing campaign.

Now, let’s point out the obvious. Generally, people don’t like being lied to, misled, or feeling like they’ve been taken advantage of — which are all things that, essentially, are a large part of stealth marketing. Most consumers say that the practice is deceptive and unethical, which makes it that much more painful when studies have estimated that an average citizen is exposed to 5,000 examples of the practice daily. But there are ways — in our opinion — to tastefully and honestly employ this sort of strategy. 

For example, once upon a time, Axe — the male grooming products brand — made decals of running stick figures to match the famous green exit signs that we see everywhere. They then strategically placed them side by side in a few cities —  in subways, buildings, etc. This created a little scene of the famous exit sign man being chased by matching figures with the insinuation that he was desirable because he had just used their products. The decals were removable, included the brand’s logo, and it came as no surprise that it was a marketing ploy to people who noticed them. Plus, they were quite humorous to boot. This is the kind of creative “stealth marketing” that might be considered acceptable by consumers.

I think one thing we can all agree on, however, is that any marketing tactic should be ethical and honest. And we do believe that there are ways to do that stealthily. Consumers deserve to be treated with respect, just like everyone else and we must convey that in the ways that we choose to advertise.