Mercenary approach generates publicity

Was the petrol giveaway stunt to promote a new video game by Electronic Arts a success or not?  It clearly depends on your perspective.

Nick Burcher and Rick Lamb view the idea’s ability to generate media attention as a PR success, whilst MP Lynne Featherstone blogs it was a “PR stunt gone wrong” as a result of angering local residents and politicians by causing traffic chaos.  Indeed, Autoblog also takes this angle calling it a “blunder”.

The idea will have achieved an aim to cut through media clutter, gain coverage and word of mouth awareness of the stunt.  But many, like MBA Geek, won’t make the connection to the actual game, Mercenaries 2; although they aren’t its target market.

Indeed, neither those queuing for the free fuel, nor residents in the local area of the chosen garage were being targeted for the new game; they were mere collateral in the publicity battle. 

However, EA did plug the fuel giveaway on its website down to a map of where to find the filling station.  The execution of the stunt was well planned with the forecourt “completely transformed into that of a military style bunker, with jeeps, oil barrels, sandbag walls, and fully costumed actors on hand to pump the petrol for the customers” echoing the theme of the game. 

The resultant traffic chaos was no accident, but an integral aspect of the idea. Without the furore and irate residents, there is no story here.  I expect the PR team behind the idea “fuelled it” (excuse the pun) by informing police and media of the traffic queue. 

Clearly as Chris Reed writes, the aim seems to have been to generate coverage for its own sake, and I agree with Richard Glynn who predicts the company won’t be concerned about negative reporting of its stunt.

This activity is purely a marketing initiative, solely intended to generate publicity.  Indeed, several of the EA team carry to the job title of publicist, whilst its agency, Shine is a marketing communications agency (although it has won several CIPR awards).

The campaign should be considered as seeking publicity, and not about achieving public relations. As such, its success should be assessed as any other marketing or promotional activity.

That means evaluating whether the media and online coverage contributed to increased sales.  However, like most advertising and other marketing tactics, the best that can be said is that it may have generated recall (of the creative if not the product).  I actually doubt whether the company measures how many customers report hearing of the stunt and whether it influenced their purchase decision.

Indeed, I don’t suppose the research element of planning the stunt involved identifying whether it would actually lead to increased purchases.  There is an assumption in many campaigns that simply getting attention and media coverage leads to a desired behavioural consequence.

It is easy to motivate motorists to queue for free fuel.  It is much more of a challenge to demonstrate the linkage between their activities and sales of Mercenaries 2.

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Heather Yaxley

Heather Yaxley is passionate about PR - teaching the CIPR qualifications, lecturing part-time at Bournemouth University and running the Motor Industry Public Affairs Association (MIPAA). I'm undertaking a PhD looking at Career Strategies in PR. I love sharing ideas and knowledge - connecting news and views by blogging on public relations and educational developments, especially relating to accelerated and active learning. I'm also a published author, qualified trainer and experienced consultant.

14 thoughts on “Mercenary approach generates publicity”

  1. Excellent post. You linked to my blog post (on MBA Geek) and I have to agree with you on your final point, demonstrating the causality between the stunt and actual increases in sales will be nigh on impossible.

  2. I doubt I’m the target audience for Electronic Arts, but my reaction to the events (which happened just round the corner from where I used to live) was made more negative by their unwillingness to apologise to local residents who got caught up in the chaos.

    The result? Next time I hear of the company name, I’ll be thinking ‘Oh, another bunch of people who let their desire for profits blind them to basic standards of behaviour like consideration of others.’

    I doubt their bank balance will notice this🙂 but in the long run do they really want a reputation about just being in it for the money and stuff the consequences? That’s not great branding for a firm.

  3. I think this was a very successful campaign in terms of raising awareness and don’t think these sort of stunts can be judged against direct sales (though if overall sales targets are met or exceeded it will be a vindication of launch strategy, of which this stunt formed a major part.)

    In a crowded marketplace any game launch has to create an impact not just for sales, but to convince retailers of the benefits of giving it shelf space and point of sale support. Achieving this through traditional media routes is expensive and not an option for the majority of games as the spend v return equation would not stack up. Wii Fit or Spore (which was also released on Friday) have enough pre-sales or evidence from other markets to justify strong pre-launch spend, but most launches, such as Mercenaries 2, have to get more creative with their plans – thus free petrol stunts in Finsbury Park.

    Most of the coverage I have read does give details of how the free fuel was relevant to the game, so anyone reading the story knows why EA ran this stunt and the basic premise of the game – I don’t think the majority of readers will not make the connection in this case.

    Creating controversy and then counting the column inches from the back of it is not a new idea though. Ryanair have repeatedly followed this route and despite repeatedly being criticised by the ASA, they still continue to do it – ‘All That Free Publicity Ads Up’. However rather than alienating a large group of people through an offensive ad, EA have caused inconvenience to (a relatively small group of) local people and are looking at a significant return as a result. (Note I am not necessarily saying that I agree with deliberately causing chaos, and I don’t think there is any doubt that the stunt planners knew this would cause chaos, my point is that a relatively small marketing budget has delivered a large return in column inches – though agree that many companies would not want the negative headline associations.)

    Also whilst the mainstream news have condemned the ‘irresponsible stunt’, they have still given it widespread coverage. This has helped the stunt to achieve its awareness objectives and making it more likely that someone will try something like this again – indeed seeing the game denounced by the Daily Mail may actually endear it to its target audience!

  4. Thanks Owen.

    Mark – I agree that organisations should think about their wider reputation and not just short term publicity gains, but such companies seem to fail to see the connection until there is a crisis or they need the support of publics who have developed a negative impression which is then harder to shift.

    Picking up on Nick’s points, I’ve frequently looked at Ryanair in this regard. You can use stunts and controversy to increase “awareness” – and that certainly isn’t a new strategy. Many of the early US PR practitioners were famous for their creativity in “fooling the public”. Indeed, I support a truly creative stunt – but do feel it needs a closer connection not just to the product (which EA did have here) but in reaching the required audience.

    I doubt that the media coverage of this stunt reached EA’s primary market – certainly they aren’t readers of the Daily Mail. It will need additional word of mouth for the stunt to appear “cool” – but such contrived activities don’t necessarily grab the attention of younger consumers.

    Surprisingly, EA has invested in a mainstream TV advertising campaign for Mercenaries 2, so I’m not sure they aimed to utilise media coverage owing to low budgets. EA isn’t exactly slow at spending money to support its games and many are viewed critically by the hard core gamers – so perhaps that’s why they need stunts as the products alone don’t generate real buzz.

    Although difficult to prove effectivenss, it helps to avoid a tenuous link to sales when launching a product with a stunt. To have “awareness” as a goal is weak in my view, unless you can then demonstrate how awareness is converted to something more tangible.

    I love the idea of claiming success if sales result – that’s so typical of too much evaluation in PR and marketing. It would work more for me if all those who spend client’s budgets with sales not resulting would boast of their failures, not just assuming they are responsible for success.

  5. What exactly do you mean when you say “the campaign should be considered as seeking publicity, and not about achieving public relations”? The brief was to communicate the launch of Mercenaries 2 to a target audience, which is exactly what it has done. It has taken a message (the game’s launch) and related it to the public (mainstream and gamers) so how is it not public relations? You’d hope that the awareness would stimulate purchase (and looking at the feedback in the game forums it’s likely it will), but this activity was designed to let people know a new product has launched and is available for purchase. Perhaps our definition of PR differs: mine is simply “relating information to the public”, what’s yours?

    The skill of today’s consumer PR professional is to disrupt convention to facilitate discovery of a brand / product message. You can no longer tell people how great a brand / product is and hope they believe you, instead you have to do something that enables people to discover the brand / product message for themselves. By taking over a petrol station and giving out free fuel, EA (and Shine) has created a conversation point that has turned 1,000s of journalists, bloggers, 500 motorists and many more individuals into brand messengers all announcing the launch of the game (including yourself) – and surely you have to tell people something is available before they can actually buy it?

  6. Danny – I don’t equate public relations with publicity and do have a much wider definition than you indicate of ‘relating information to the public’.

    I see a brief to communicate the launch of Mercenaries 2 as part of a marketing strategy in terms of generating publicity, ie to stimulate interest with consumers – and, if a classic linear approach is believed, to lead to sales.

    However, your claim that the “consumer PR professional” needs to “disrupt convention to facilitate discovery of a brand/product message” (ie cut through the clutter largely caused by too much PR/marketing noise), goes beyond simply relating information.

    Following through your observation, that it is necessary to “enable people to discover the brand/product message for themselves”, a more complex psychological process is involved.

    In this case, EA (and Shine) created “a conversation point” – although interestingly the approach appears to have been less controversial a few weeks ago in LA (http://www.ps3fanboy.com/2008/08/29/ea-gives-away-free-gas-in-los-angeles-in-mercenaries-2-promo).

    However, this still assumes the same leap of faith that talking about something leads to behaviour change. Being aware of something is only one part of a decision making process – my main point is that the psychology is much more complex and too often, marketing/publicity campaigns are happy to “hope” there is a causal effect.

    Stunts, advertising, and other publicity tactics can work – and this one does seem to have been creative and generated some attention. Being able to evaluate the impact of activities is important – and should not stop at the first step of making a decision.

    Of course, not all the attention generated was positive, although EA (as with Ryanair) may not care at the moment about any negativity.

    However, organisations need to achieve a range of corporate objectives, beyond generating initial coverage for new products. My own background includes many years spent launching new cars, and I know that generating awareness of a new car is easy. When you have a great new model, then the buzz and conversational momentum soon builds. But you still need to ensure initial interest moves through into a purchase decision – where the company’s reputation (where PR plays a key part) is essential.

    I believe this is where the wider remit of PR comes into play (engaging with publics other than consumers). So I define public relations as much more than simply providing information if it is to help achieve a wide range of strategic aims.

    Although it is valid to use media and online activities as part of the publicity/marketing strategy to generate attention, it remains rather naive to “hope that the awareness would stimulate purchase”, as the simplistic AIDA model isn’t proven psychologically.

  7. You make a big assumption with your “i.e.” (“cut through the clutter largely caused by too much PR/marketing noise”). For me the “clutter” is not just PR/marketing noise, but anything that competes for people’s attention and – as a wider debate on consumer PR – this competition is not really other brands, but other forms of entertainment. For consumer PR agencies creativity is the route to encourage discovery of a brand / product message and whether a person acts on this brand / product message is the end user’s choice, but they need to be aware of that choice. As the saying goes “you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t force it to drink” – and that’s what we do everyday, lead people into discovering a brand / product message. You can only make someone try a consumer brand / product once and if the brand / product promise doesn’t stack up they won’t repeat purchase (or be a brand advocate).

    I’d argue the EA activity did stimulate behavioral change. People didn’t know about the launch of Mercenaries 2, they did a stunt, people now know about the launch of Mercenaries 2. And that was the brief. A £20k tactic related the information to the public in a more cost effective and engaging way than a more expensive ad campaign would have. I agree it’s only one part of the decision making process, but knowing a new product has actually launched is a pretty crucial part don’t you think – else how would people know it’s in the shops to buy?

    It’s clear our definitions of PR differ, but I would say that those consumer agencies who don’t think or act like “traditional” PR agencies (us (Mischief), Shine, Cow, Frank, etc) are the ones who are helping our clients achieve their business objectives by stimulating conversations and building positive relationships with their target audiences.

  8. Dan, I don’t think it is a big assumption to claim that PR/marketing noise is creating clutter given the estimates that the average consumer is exposed to at least 3,000 marketing messages a day.

    Of course, there are other calls on everyone’s attention – especially since not everyone uses mainstream or online media simply to seek entertainment. Indeed, many will be looking for information and debate on issues, politics and genuine news, so they may not even notice messages from brands such as EA, that have little interest to them.

    Similary, if consumers are looking for entertainment, brands will have to utilise various means to reach them and the creative stunt is one option. I’m not denying that awareness is a key initial step in a decision making process – but let’s not assume getting attention is a sufficient goal in itself. It may well have been in this case, but that seems a rather limited aim.

    We continue to hear about “awareness campaigns”, when the issue often isn’t about someone becoming aware of a situation or a brand. I’ve lost count of the number of sponsorship initiatives where the stated aim has been to increase awareness – although the consumer or public is already familiar with a brand or product.

    Creativity can certainly be utilised to reach publics – but it is important that such skills are harnessed to achieve real corporate goals and not just a clever idea for its own sake.

    I’m not sure that people were unaware of the launch of Mercenaries 2 as the campaign has included television adverts – and no doubt point of sale material in relevant outlets to help persuade consumers to buy – but that’s not to say generating media coverage shouldn’t be part of an integrated campaign.

    Let’s be careful also over the budget spend here – I understand the free fuel could have cost £20,000 (that seems to have been the level of EA’s commitment). In addition, there will have been agency fees, staging costs, fees for the actors and probably to the garage as well.

    Nevertheless, I think there is room for stunts to generate publicity in support of marketing objectives (what Kitchen calls the reductionist viewpoint of PR).

    However, I think this is a pretty traditional approach, as the publicity stunt is as old, if not older than modern PR. I’ve written before the imaginative approaches of publicists such as PT Barnum, Jim Moran and Harry Reichenbach, who wrote and broke the rule books on creative press agentry. It is great that agencies such as Mischief, Shine, Cow etc continue this tradition – particularly if they are able to deliver more than awareness or column inches for clients.

  9. Of course it is “important that such skills are harnessed to achieve real corporate goals”, but the EA activity was about raising awareness so it DID achieved the corporate goal. And, to me, this is public relations as it’s relating information to the public (in this case the launch of a new game). Your point is that it’s not public relations, but a publicity stunt. What’s the semantic difference? How is creating a conversation point to communicate a specific product message not public relations? And while we’re at it, what should consumer PR achieve if not awareness? If it’s sales (as your musings suggest), how do you generate these without first generating awareness?

  10. I am a college student who is still learning the many facets of PR, however as I understand it, public relations manages the flow of information and maintains a relationship between the company and its many publics. This tactic, though successful in generating buzz, did not look at the entire picture. You cannot look at one public when looking at the success of a campaign.

    From the post above, it seems that there was a negative reaction with people who may not play Mercenaries 2 but other games [i.e. Sims]. EA has to maintain its entire base. Moreover, if the stunt didn’t relate to a purchase, and merely awareness of the game, the outcome was less than desirable because the company gains negative perception from other potential publics and in return some people received free gas.

    In my opinion, which again is from the point of view of a naive college student, the company should apologize for disrupting the town. What harm could it do apart from helping their image?

  11. Dan,

    Debbie has kindly addressed one key point in recognising that PR is much more than simply publicity. Unless very closely targeted, it is clear that most communications reach a wider audience than just potential consumers and the impact on them must be considered. That is particularly the case if they could potentially have a negative reaction. In the EA case, a few hundred local residents and one vocal MP would have passed on negative messages, although I doubt the company viewed such perceptions as important.

    But consumer-oriented initiatives should never be so blinkered that they haven’t taken the “what if” element into account. There are plenty of examples where advertising and marketing campaigns have failed to consider consequences resulting in a serious corporate crisis – need I mention Hoover’s 1992 flight offer, or Cadbury’s Kashmir advert, or the Cartoon Network fake bomb promo?

    Some brands such as Ryanair and Benetton may deliberately court controversy – but they need to be fully aware of the risks, particularly among the wide range of publics who may take action in one form or another. There can certainly be short-term gain, but in the longer term, organisations may need support that is then not forthcoming. We will see that with Ryanair in due course – especially when poor financial results start to bite.

    In terms of “awareness” as a corporate goal, I still maintain clients generally want more for the money they are spending than this vague psychological concept. Indeed, I’m not convinced EA or its agency assessed the existing level of awareness (although we could assume it as zero for the sake of argument with a new product) and the consequent level of awareness afterwards. I expect some form of counting media mentions etc is used with an assumption that coverage (or conversation if you prefer) generates awareness generates interest generates decisions generates action. The linear AIDA model that just does not reflect the reality.

    Just think of all the things that you are aware of but do you take action as a result? Indeed, does the “awareness” campaign actually help you make a decision about what action to take. That’s why anti-smoking campaigns have moved on from simply presenting information about the likelihood of cancer to ensuring those who wish to quit smoking (ie have got the “awareness” message) are able to take action to give up.

    That involves persuasion rather than simply relating information to the public. In my experience, most clients don’t ask us to just relate information to their target audiences, they want to persuade – in the case of consumer campaigns, that means influencing intention to purchase, if not actual buying behaviour.

    As I’ve said, awareness may be step one, and appropriate if lack of awareness is the key to influencing consumers. Creating awareness generally requires publicity – which is defined as “disseminating information through various media to attract public notice” – and clearly fits your understanding of PR.

    Most definitions of public relations go further than this – see http://toughsledding.wordpress.com/2008/07/20/a-sort-of-unified-definition-of-public-relations-without-a-single-mention-of-marketing/ for an excellent reflection on these.

    The basic concept they cover is that PR is a management function involved in a two-way communications process that seeks to acknowledge (if not accommodate) needs of publics not just the organisation.

    In the UK, the CIPR links PR very much to reputation management – emphasising this as the result of what you do, what you say and what others say about you.

    All of these emphasise that PR is not simply about a one way method of imparting information to publics (which itself is a very specific term relating to those who affect or are affected by the organisation). The focus is much more on the need to build relationships and secure a “licence to operate” in society.

    This wider definition recognises PR’s involvement in areas such as issues and crisis management, public affairs, internal communications, financial relations, CSR and so forth.

    PR certainly can, and does, play a role in helping marketing colleagues particularly through media relations expertise. This may involve generating publicity – although it could equally involve building relationships with influencers other than journalists.

    I’m certainly not being critical of the creative skills required to achieve publicity – or their role in helping achieve awareness. However, I believe that whether used in support of achieving marketing goals, managing issues or other corporate objectives, PR is not just semantically different to
    publicity.

    But semantically, although publicity may be one element of PR, that does not mean that PR is the same as publicity. A wet nose may be one part of a dog, but it doesn’t follow a dog is a wet nose.

    Likewise, although awareness may be a valid outcome of a campaign – in itself, it is unlikely to lead to the attitudinal or behavioural change that most organisations really seek.

    My biggest issue with the focus on awareness in itself is that there is the assumption that this leads automatically to more sophisticated cognitive, affective or behavioural outcomes. There are many models of consumer behaviour that show this is not so and help marketers (and PR practitioners) understand receivers are not passively injected by corporate messages. The work of Petty and Cacioppo for example, with their elaboration likelihood model helps us understand how messages are processed in terms of emotional reactions versus more cognitive consideration.

    A wider appreciation of the role of PR helps organisations achieve much more than publicity for new products. And, although that can be a relevant aim in itself, recognising the wider potential is genuinely of much more value than simply making a semantic difference.

  12. “The campaign should be considered as seeking publicity, and not about achieving public relations. As such, its success should be assessed as any other marketing or promotional activity.”

    My issue was with this specific line, which suggested generating publicity sat outside a public relations remit. You’ve now clarified that publicity is part of public relations. Throwing the theory into the ring and opening up the whole spectrum of activity public relations can claim to cover is great, but wasn’t really the answer to my original question. I still maintain that a definition of PR being “relating information to the public” covers all what you mention above as you need to consider all aspects of the discipline when you decide what to “relate” and how to do this.

    Yes, it’s absolutely important to consider all aspects of corporate goals, reputation management, etc, but this activity was clearly designed to generate awareness of a specific product. Considering the content of the product the activity was spot on in terms of appealing to the target audience. I’m sure a global orgainsation such as EA considered the outcomes and weighed up the consequences (especially because they had already done the stunt in the States before doing it in the UK) and actually stuck their neck out to cause a reaction, which became a conversation point and achieved the goal of creating awareness. Whether you believe this was enough and would lead to sales is by the by – and perhaps we should wait to see the game charts before casting judgment.

    Anyway, for a (refreshing) change tell us of a current consumer PR campaign that you do admire / deem successful?

  13. Dan, I think we are probably best to agree to disagree over the relationship between PR and publicity, and the value or otherwise of “awareness”. But if you care to sign up for the CIPR foundation award, advanced certificate or diploma qualifications (at Cambridge Marketing Colleges where I teach or one of the other centres), you’d find this topic is one that is covered off in the first sessions.

    Students start by reflecting on different definitions or perspectives of PR and you’d be welcome to justify your own personal view, as compared to some great media views such as PR is the “latrine of public misinformation”.

    We also look at the goal of generating publicity for marketing purposes, or within a wider public relations remit. A one-way “press agentry” approach to PR is one model of practice, albeit a rather limiting one. Another is “public information” (which echoes your definition) involving a one-way method of communicating factual but selectively positive information.

    We also look further at psychology, persuasion, relationship building, risk and crisis management, and other aspects of PR practice that go beyond transmitting information – indeed, the ability to listen and seek input from publics is considered vital these days. That’s as true for consumer-oriented campaigns as in achieving other corporate objectives.

    At the start of my post, I stated that whether or not EA’s campaign is considered a success depends on your perspective. Clearly you and I differ on our personal evaluation. EA and its agency may well be happy with the results – and they will have to evaluate the expense and benefits of the “awareness” generated in terms of the overall launch of this game.

    They can also compare the results in the US and UK – although it was the traffic chaos (intended or otherwise) that seems to have given the London launch more publicity than it would otherwise have generated based on the US example.

    I don’t think the company will view whether the resulting coverage contributes to sales is “by the by” – although it is interesting that you then make the leap to imply that the games charts could then be used to evaluate the success of an “awareness” campaign.

    The reviews of the game that I’ve read have been pretty unexcited by it – and indeed, much more interesting has been how the reputation of EA is being affected by the activations issue relating to Spore and particularly the negative word of mouth that is generating.

    In respect of consumer PR campaigns that I admire or deem successful, I do frequently pick up on work that I find impressive. Although of course, this is my blog, so whether or not I decide to reflect on negative or positive aspects of PR activiites is largely up to me.

    In terms of a current consumer campaign that has generated positive word of mouth and stimulated business, I’d have to say Mama Mia. Although the Dark Knight may have generated more “awareness” with coverage and indeed favourable reviews at its launch (which was roughly the same time), it is Mama Mia that is still doing good business. Mama Mia isn’t a particularly good film but it has generated a buzz and personal recommendations from friend to friend. Launching the “singalong” version will now see the film continue to generate income for years to come – as per Sound of Music and Rocky Horror. Already it is the biggest selling musical in UK cinema history, and is 2008’s highest grossing film.

    But is this success down to the publicity for Mama Mia which Universal says was “significantly more than the average £40 million marketing budget”?

    Mind you, in terms of revenue, Dark Knight will recoup its money in the games market (which is an unlikely income stream for Mama Mia). Although the organic word of mouth will be its real selling point, I expect EA (the reputed company behind the DK game) will use a full range of publicity tactics, although generating sales rather than “awareness” should be the primary goal.

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