Extra, extra! Company uses misleading marketing!

The New York Times today reported that a company is knowingly using misleading advertising to sell products. I guess that passes for news these days.

The company in question is a little-known provider of cell phone accoutrements who started a buzz marketing campaign called Pherotones, presumably ringtones that trigger lust in the opposite sex. No word if there are made-up gay Pherotones, too.

As clever marketing schemes go, this one gets a “meh.” What caught my attention was the fake product’s sales copy that followed the typical game plan of real pseudoscientific claims: one ad claims the tones are “too hot for mainstream science,” and a page on the web site explains that modern science doesn’t understand everything about the human brain.

From the New York Times:

One recent study has indicated that the buying public is willing to be fooled. A study by Northeastern University released last month found that even when participants who pitch products in word-of-mouth campaigns identify their commercial affiliations, it usually does not affect consumers’ willingness to pass the marketing message on.

There’s no word on whether or not people are actually believing this campaign, but the article mentions another buzz idea that surfaced in 2004 — Burger King’s super creepy subservient chicken site. The idea was frankly much more interesting and clever than Pherotones, and featured a man in a chicken costume on a web cam. Users can type in commands to see the man do certain things, like dance, jump up and down, or flip off the camera. I remember when it first came out, and no one had a clue who was behind the site or why, and many, many people were fooled into thinking that the chicken was actually reading their commands and performing for them (as opposed to a simple program that recognized keywords).

The public’s willingness to be fooled extends well beyond the world of buzz marketing, and into the world of fraud and actual pseudoscience. I wonder if campaigns like this are only making the problems worse by giving people more useless crap to believe, or does someone eventually yelling “gotcha” do anything to make people realize that there are a lot of silly hoaxes out there that don’t become true just because we want them to be?

I tend to like things like this, because I’m always interested in cons and tricks, and in studying how and why people are fooled. As for whether or not it will actually sell ringtones, well — I’m not holding my breath. What was the name of the company behind Pherotones again? Meh.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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  1. Pherotones really ins't that clever at all. It's kind of lame actually. If anyone gets fooled by such a poor attempt at a pseudoscam, they are idiots. The chicken was pure genius when it came out. Its something stupid that people will actually sit and use, not thinking about how they are contributing to brand formation for the company. The chicken ad was just an ad, the Pherotones are selling something that does nothing. The chicken site does not actually sell a product, nor does it charge for "interacting" with the chicken. Chicken good… Pherotones bad…

    Just for fun, check out the little terms and conditions at the bottom of the site, funniest one I have ever seen.

  2. In viral marketing, I'd always make a distinction between a clever hoax (like the planted legend that Altoids increase the pleasurs of oral sex) and a stupid piggiy-back-ride on Wikipedia (like the Pherotones example).

    Still, I believe that for the intended target group, even the pherotones campaign will increase sales of their ringtones. It's all about brand awarenes theses days, especially for interchangable services like ring tones.

    And don't trash Viral Marketing – you can be an advertising psychologist AND a skeptic… you just have to be ruthless enough ;).

    – m., not for Machiavelli

  3. The links for the tones now go off the pherotones site to Oasys Mobile's ringtone pages. But you can still do what I did with the pherotone site… Press "listen" and record the tones.

    I can't wait to see what having this ringtone will do for my sex life:

    "The Double Header

    For men who think fun comes better in pairs, this Pherotone is dynamically calibrated to attract two like-minded females simultaneously. We can’t promise your party of three will last forever. But in the morning, they’ll probably at least stay for coffee."

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