Branding Beat - Cut Through the Noise

What Elmo, Canned Ham, and Social Media Have in Common

He’s squeaky-voiced.



And fire-engine red.

Despite his numerous physical eccentricities, he became a phenomenon.

His name?

Tickle-Me Elmo.

Tickle Me Elmo

The plush face that launched a thousand erratically-driven mini-vans.

He is one of the many toys to have become a sensation thanks to the holiday season. A toy, or gift, or [in more recent times] new technology the public didn’t knew they needed to have until someone came along and told them otherwise.

Who told them? A billboard as big as the side of a building? A full-page print ad in the Sunday newspaper? A barrage of primetime 30-second commercial spots?


Try their neighbor, their co-worker, their mother, or their friend.

It’s the best advertisement you can buy (or don’t have to buy): word-of-mouth. WOM, for short.

Now, this form of advertising comes easy when you’re Elmo. But what about products without the significant advantage of being cute and lovable plush children’s toys? What about the other holiday items? Like the Christmas ham? Or – more unpopular still – a canned ham?

How do you sell someone a canned ham? How do you sell someone on the #2-most-popular canned ham? Most people couldn’t come up with a solution for that problem. Sure, this is to assume the unpopularity of canned ham is an actual problem, but for the sake of this article, let’s pretend that it is. Presented with this problem, Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce (the subject ad agency of AMC’s Mad Men) doesn’t waste much time in finding a remedy.

In the fourth season opener, “Public Relations,” the Sugarberry Ham Company approaches SCDP, asking them to help rejuvenate interest in their product. The problem isn’t that consumers don’t know of their hams, but rather, they don’t prefer them to the competition, and interest in them is – at best – lukewarm. Suffice it to say, there aren’t very many people talking about their hams…if any at all.

To make matters worse, the company is currently testing their hams in local supermarkets in the New York area (spending the majority of their advertising budget doing so) and cannot afford to spend much more on another campaign. They have to reach as many consumers as possible, all while spending the least amount of money.

SCDP’s brainstorming leads them to some unconventional ideas: one involves buying out all the hams in all the test supermarkets to make the store shelves appear empty. Working along the same line, and toward a more affordable option, they decide upon a publicity stunt. They buy enough hams at a single supermarket so that only one remains on the shelf, and hire two actresses to fight over the last one. It makes noise in the store, and it makes a louder noise, still, in the local newspapers.

The WOM buzz creates the demand Sugarberry needs to sell more hams, accomplishing the goals of the client company. The supermarket melee inspires the advertising firm’s new campaign slogan, “Our Hams are Worth Fighting For,” solidifying the firm’s relationship with their client.

When they didn’t have WOM supporting the product, they decided to make it themselves. When the product wasn’t popular, they convinced people it was.

It isn’t much different from what one company does today in Boston. Well, it’s much more legal, and a lot more legitimate, but the approach is much the same.

The company, BzzAgent, has taken this type of marketing and improved upon it by pairing it with social media marketing.

Lawrys BzzAgent Kit

A typical BzzAgent Kit: Come for the BBQ, stay for the consumer product testing.

How it works: BzzAgent enlists volunteers to participate in testing new products, and sharing their opinions via their Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube accounts with people they know (Participation is entirely voluntary, and if a person does not support the product, they are not obligated to support it). The feedback resulting is reported back to BzzAgent to help companies improve their products, and help BzzAgent improve their own programs. In return, volunteers receive free or heavily-discounted items. The more detailed and more frequent volunteers are in their participation, the greater the number and quality of the surveys they are invited to participate in. The more a BzzAgent gives, in short, the more he or she gets.

Don Draper’s irrefutable charm and persuasive influence as a salesman is unmatched (I mean, come on, the guy could sell ice cream to someone in a snowstorm), but I have to say BzzAgent has made significant improvements (Sorry, Don!) upon the WOM method of advertising, for several reasons:

Voluntary Advocacy:

Instead of hiring actors to pretend they feel a certain way about a product, BzzAgent relies upon honest opinions provided by everyday people, whose involvement in programs is – and remains – strictly voluntary.

Non-Monetary Motivation:

Hired actors only need to have and carry an opinion so long as they are being paid to do so. Once the paychecks run out, so does the advocacy. This isn’t to say there shouldn’t be an incentive to support a product or brand. With BzzAgent, participation is directly proportional to the frequency and quality of the surveys agents are chosen to be part of. They can participate as little or as often as they would like, or quit entirely, even, without being any negative repercussions or losses. Additionally, influence and opinion is not being paid for, not is it contrived.

Direct Media Involvement:

Sometimes happy circumstances place newspaper reporters at the scene of something newsworthy. Sometimes an event normally deemed newsworthy doesn’t make the cuts of the daily headlines. So much is left to chance when it comes to a media presence that there is no guarantee that it will make an impact upon consumers. Back then, local news was relegated to one of a few places: the newspaper, the grocery store aisle, or the corner diner. And that’s about as far as it traveled. BzzAgents are not only creating the subject and content of the news, but they’re posting, publishing, sharing, and tweeting it as well. They are the reporters of their own news and can share it at no cost to themselves or the companies whose products they’re promoting.

Geographical Reach:

Back in the 1960’s, local news was relegated to one of a few places: the newspaper, the grocery store aisle, or the corner diner. And that’s about as far as it traveled. Local stories rarely if ever were significant enough to report on a national level and the only technology with significant reach – the telephone – was still an expensive means of communication. Today, the most popular forms of media (aptly-named “social media” platforms) not only are completely free to use, but moreover, are globally connected, enabling instantaneous sharing between states, countries, and even continents.

Lasting Impact:

Sugarberry Ham made a name for itself from a one-time incident that made the daily papers. It – at best – made it seem popular. Popularity can be maintained if long-terms goals are made and met, but the small and simple scope of this example from Mad Men likely wouldn’t make it to the next month, yet alone calendar year. The consumers turn either bored or disinterested and move their attention elsewhere, and the hired brand advocates last only as long as their paid working day. The publicity and resulting advertisement coming from BzzAgent posts make a lasting impression on the internet community, more widely spread amongst larger social media networks. The more views, the more likes, the more shares, the larger the advertisement grows.

The biggest complaint I have read from those working in advertisement and marketing is that the techniques and methods seen on Mad Men have become as much a dinosaur as three-martini lunches and overt chauvinism. Now, the ways in which things are said have changed, yes, but what is being said still remains the most important part of advertisement. And, as much as we rely on popular media to influence our decisions and choices, we still will always be influenced most by those who influence us directly. Neighbors. Co-workers. Mothers. Friends. Who better to get an opinion from than someone whose opinion matters to you?

What do you think about the comparisons drawn in this post? Does word-of-mouth marketing interest you? Which other sales techniques generate buzz about brands?



Bubba is the Quality Logo Products mascot. He may have started out as "just a stress ball," but he's come a long way since the company's launch in 2003. Bubba has been immortalized in numerous vector artwork designs for internal and external promotions, and you can see him change outfits on the Quality Logo Products homepage whenever a holiday rolls around. Oh, and he thinks pants are for the birds. You can connect with Bubba on


  1. Mandy Kilinskis

    Great post, Eric! Even if it started back in the fictional 60s, word of mouth advertising has come a long way. I love that BzzAgents still tackles this kind of advertising and helps project it into the internet and blog-o-sphere. I’m more than happy to talk about brands that I love, and if I’m getting that stuff for free or practically free? Then you’ll see my Twitter feed blowing up about it.

    Never underestimate the power of brand advocates. 🙂

    P.S. If you think Tickle Me Elmo was great, then you haven’t seen nothing yet.

    • Eric

      Thanks, Mandy! I just like it because it makes 100% sense to have satisfied customers become your advertisement. I’m sure there are BzzAgents out there who’ll endorse anything if it means some free samples, but I’d assume the majority of people promoting something are the ones who like and believe in it.

      Oh, Elmo. I wish they’d make a compromise between children’s toys, and useful household appliances. “Vaccuum the House Elmo” would be a personal favorite, giving him a toy car to ride in that doubles as a Roomba. Hmm. Off to the patent office for me…

      • Mandy Kilinskis

        That would be pretty awesome. But do you know what’s even cooler?

        DJ Roomba.

        • Eric

          CHRISTMAS. WISH. LIST. DJ Roomba can party at my place anytime. That’s easily the most awesome thing I’ve seen all week, and yet another epic win for you, Mandy.

  2. Joseph Giorgi

    Excellent and thought-provoking post, sir!

    The “Lasting Impact” you mentioned is key. Word-of-mouth advertising has a tendency to spread like wildfire, and BzzAgents seems to know exactly how to facilitate that. I like the company’s methodology: incentivizing advocacy on social channels with discounted items. It’s pretty brilliant.

    • Eric

      Right on, brother. Who’re you more likely to trust endorsing something? A celebrity biding time between takes on his B-movie? Or someone you actually know? The fact they use consumers is smart. The fact they use social media as the means by which they spread advertisement, well, is something else entirely.

  3. Jill Tooley

    You bring up so many fascinating points in this post. I never would have tied Elmo in with Sugarberry canned hams…you’re good!

    Word-of-mouth marketing may be an “elder” in the industry, but it’s still one of the most effective. BY FAR. The methods may have changed, but the idea is basically the same: attach trust to the sales pitch and you’ll up the chances that someone will buy your product/service. I’d be 100 times more likely to try something new if a trusted friend or family member recommended it! BzzAgent seems like a sweet deal in this respect.

    I wonder how many hired actors actually stick with a product after the paycheck runs out? That would be an interesting study to conduct… 🙂

    • Eric

      Thanks, Jill! Well, let’s think about it: probably the oldest-fashioned way I can put it would be asking a diner waitress, “Well, what’s good?” or “Are you known for a specialty?” I don’t care what kind of epicurean wordsmith they’ve got writing ten-dollar haute culinary terms on a menu…ask someone who’s actually tried it.

      As for the latter idea, well, that might be too good to pass up.

      After all, did Shaq stay with the Double-Decker Taco?

  4. Ellyn Gilmore

    Love the article Eric. Especially the reference to Mad Men. (That was a great episode!)

    There is actually a movie that came out in 2009 called The Joneses. It is about a pretend family that is hired to sell or promote companies’ products by simply using them. While their suburban neighbors try to “keep up with the Jones”. I haven’t seen the movie yet but saw a preview for it last weekend and now would like to watch it because it fits perfectly with this post!!

    • Eric

      Thanks, Ellyn! LOVED that episode. Draper’s outburst at the Jantzen folks is one of my favorite moments from him, leading right up until his second take at a newspaper interview. Perfect closer for an episode.

      I know “The Truman Show” dabbled with the thought in live-in advertising, but I’ve not heard of “The Joneses.” I’ll have to look it up. Comes at a good time, because my movie queue is running pretty darn low. Thanks for the tip!

  5. amy

    A really interesting read, Eric! I love ‘Mad Men’ and cannot wait for it to come back!! As for your WOM question, I always trust it more than any other form of advertising. Sure, it’s neat to feel like “cool” because you’re driving the same car as JLo or wearing the same jacket as (insert celebrity hawking clothing here). But, if the car is going to break down after 45,000 miles or the jacket is going to fall apart after one season, I want to know before I buy it.

    P.s I love your idea of combining Elmo with household appliances! Maybe we could attach Swiffer dusters to his feet and have him walk on coffee tables, end tables, etc.? There’s a missed product offering here that needs to be explored 😉

  6. Eric

    Ironically, I think the way celebs actually sell things isn’t by putting their name on them with embroidery, or making a commercial for them…or spending your maternity leave on QVC (seriously, Mariah…what the heck?). Indirect influence, which one could almost call coy sometimes, is far more powerful. “Mad Men” can likely be thanked for making the 2010’s the new 60’s. People have modeled themselves and their homes from what they’ve seen on the show. Have you ever seen an ad for one of Draper’s suits? Or the 34273428734289342 gallons of pomade slicking down the male half of the cast? Or Joan’s dresses? Nope. Nary a one. But damn, do they sell. ::Eric absconds off to Ebay to scope-out some vintage watches::

Leave a Comment

Copyright 2003 - 2015 Quality Logo Products, Inc., Registration No. TX7-524-201. All Rights Reserved.