Conspiring with union officials. Defacing public property. Bribing police. Is this a promotional plan or a grand jury indictment?
If you’re VH-1 and the time is August, 1997, the answer is the former. The cable music network took those risky measures while executing a guerrilla campaign for its Pop-Up Video program. Still, New York City-based Marlin Entertainment Group, which handled the promo, set aside bail money in case the latter became a reality.
“There was a clause in all our contracts promising to post bail for anyone who might have been arrested,” says Marlin ceo Neal Frank, noting that the company also takes out a $1 million insurance policy for every event it handles.
Pop-Up Video, which airs music videos enhanced by informative, humorous, and often sardonic editorial comments that “pop” onto the screen in little white bubbles, had become so popular by the summer of ’97 that unwelcome copycats were filching the idea. VH-1 charged Marlin with developing a campaign that would give it “definitive ownership” of the concept in the minds of consumers, Frank explains.
Specialists in guerrilla marketing, or what Frank calls “ambushing,” Marlin devised a five-city Pop Squad tour designed to generate as much media attention as possible by clogging city streets and crashing the gates of major events. “Ambushing is not for the faint-hearted. You need clients that are really willing to take extra risks,” says Frank. “But the rewards are there, because you’re affecting consumers in ways they haven’t been affected before.”
Count VH-1 as a risk-taker. “We were jazzed about the idea,” says director of consumer marketing Melissa Wasserman. “We had a short window and a limited amount of cash. And we wanted a local program, so we understood the [potential] consequences.”
Marlin recruited five-member teams of actors willing to don bubble-wrap suits and hand out premiums in New York City, Atlanta, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Detroit. A tour manager rode along to schmooze police and sweet-talk security guards. (The Pop Squad wasn’t supposed to talk.)
Starving actors work cheap, notes Frank, although some money had to be spent on casting as well. “We had to make sure we had responsible, capable people. They had to work 14-hour days and still feel like a bubble.”
The Pop Squad traveled in rented Humvees customized with shrink wrap, bubble machines, and P.A. systems to blast the Pop-Up theme song. Squad members often stood atop the vehicles tossing premiums into the crowds that would gather.
May we snipe your ad? The night before the team arrived in each city, Marlin sent in a recon squad to plot logistics and snipe the travel route with signs, banners, and posters. In New York City’s Times Square, the advance unit covered storefronts with static cling and riveted six-foot strips of sheet metal to the billboards that dominate the skyline.
To avoid possible lawsuits, Marlin contacted the advertisers whose signage it planned to deface ahead of time. “The hardest calls we had to make were to the marketers to tell them that we wanted to snipe their signs for two days,” says Frank. “At first, they weren’t very receptive. But we showed them exactly where the snipes would be, and ultimately they saw that it would have good promotional value for them, too.” Marlin didn’t have to compensate any of the advertisers, according to Frank.
The next call was to the unionized rigger company needed to install the snipes – because you don’t circumvent unions in New York. Frank says the short duration of the snipes made the union’s pay scale reasonable. “I think it’s the only time they got paid twice for [working on] the same space.”
One call Marlin didn’t make was to local police. “We find that’s not the best way to do it,” because permission will often be denied, says Frank. “It’s better to get on-site and explain what you’re doing, convince them that you’re responsible and that you won’t be staying long.” Marlin usually obtains local film permits for high-traffic locations (then videotapes the events), which often helps win over skeptical authorities.
In most situations, the police can be appeased with promises to act responsibly and quickly. In many cases, the officers end up assisting with crowd control. Of course, a little graft never hurts either. “A VH-1 T-shirt goes a long way in soothing the New York City Police Department,” notes Frank.
Frank proudly proclaims that the tour encountered obstacles “everywhere.” “When you’re hanging off a building in the middle of the night [affixing a banner], and you see a cop car, you duck,” says marketing promotion coordinator Mark Biggin, who found himself in that position during the program. “If they spot you, you hand them a premium and hope that they let you keep going.”
In Atlanta, the squad was “advised” to leave after only 10 minutes at its first planned mall stop. A local radio station tailing the caravan announced the next stop on-air, so mall security was blocking entrances by the time the Humvees arrived. After several failed attempts at skirting the blockades, the team earned a police escort away from the mall. “Things like that sometimes work to your advantage,” says Frank. “Two Humvees with a police escort attract a lot of attention.”
Hassles like that left VH-1 popping with pride. “We got a lot of TV and print press,” says Wasserman. “And we gave the viewer a unique perspective on what the Pop-Up phenomenon was all about.”
And they did it without getting arrested.
Life on the guerilla marketing road can be tough. Here are some of the lessons the Pop Squad learned the hard way, according to Frank:
– Don’t dally: Staying too long in one spot can draw a crowd that will impede your movement and make authorities less agreeable. “Anything more than three to five minutes is too long.”
– Stock the Humvee: “You can’t have enough premium items. If it has a logo on it, they want it.”
– Bring extra bubble wrap: “The suits would get pretty trashed by the end of the day, because people would try to pop them.”