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?