WARNING: The following column is rated MA, for mature audiences. No graphic language, sex, nudity or violence, but the squeamish should skip it.
In the unenlightened era of the Internet, when creativity was at such a low ebb and nothing really outlandish was going on, there was Half.com. This is the fixed-price commerce site that first caught the nations eye when it persuaded the small town of Halfway, Ore., to change its name to Half.com, at least for a year.
Of course, it wasnt just suasion that got the job done. The creative geniuses at the Philadelphia company also tossed in $75,000 and 22 computers. Not a bad haul for a 345-person community.
But what a return for Half.com. That $75,000 or so was worth far more than any $2 million minute on the Super Bowl. National commentators from Katie Couric at NBCs Today show on down to this scribe at this journal have now made note of this little marketing coup.
It was worth millions of dollars. Almost literally. Not too long after, the owners turned around and sold Half.com to eBay — the auction site operator that smelled a challenge coming to its floating price system — for more than $300 million in stock. Maybe Halfway, Ore., can get a few more computers for its trouble.
Half.com has continued to think outside the triangle. Its marketing moves still command widespread coverage, due to supposed brilliance. Newspapers around the globe, for instance, picked up a piece from The Financial Times that made note of one of its more recent ploys.
Heres the top of that article, as it appeared in Malaysias The Star at the end of April:
"What would Confucius say? Just when it seems theres no surface left that advertisers havent commandeered, an Internet firm has baked up a new recipe for self-promotion: tiny ads tucked inside fortune cookies."
Oh, how cute. These cookies were distributed to restaurants nationwide. On one side of the paper is your fortune. On the other side is an offer for $5 off your next purchase at Half.com.
What will these wunderkinder think of next?
Well, just think of the absolute last place on Earth you would want your companys brand placed.
If you guessed: The bottom of a urinal . . . You win. You are hereby honored with the first annual Half-Baked.com Award for Marketing Machismo as well as the Half-Baked.com Voluntary Self-Immolation Certificate.
If you are a denizen of New York, or a commuter thereto, I hereby discourage you from visiting the mens room on the dining concourse of Grand Central Terminal (GCT). Because there you would have found the insipid, embarrassing evidence — at least on the morning and evening of June 26. Im hoping against hope that greater minds have already pulled these ads from their perches.
There, nestled in the bottom of all eight porcelain displays were perforated circles of plastic with this enticing message to be rained upon:
"Dont piss away half your money. Head to Half.com."
Now, this is a triumph of testosterone over brain cells. You can just imagine the whizzes having a grand time over a mound of cheese steak sandwiches and a few six-packs, trying to figure out what outrageous stunt they could stage next. And when all the beer was chugged, the answer came in a moment of biological clarity. Of course, Half.com says that it thought this through and didnt think it crossed the line into bad taste.
"We heard this thing about streaming media being the next hot thing," said Mark Hughes, Half.coms marketing vice president. So the company spread about a thousand of these $1.34 screens around New York, Philadelphia and eBay headquarters.
Great bang for the buck, Hughes says. The companys gotten 200 e-mails commenting on the promotion, 98 percent positive, he says.
Hughes is happy that the marketing is "hitting our target." After all, what better way to promote the next great brand of the Internet, in a town full of media types, investment bankers, Wall Street analysts, Madison Avenue types and the like who just happen to pass through GCT every day? Theres no fallout from this kind of publicity. Doesnt matter whether its positive publicity or negative publicity. Its free. Right?
Nobodys not going to buy stuff at Half.com because theyre offended by how debauched a company they might be dealing with? Nah.The target audience, so to speak, will love it. Theyll laugh. Theyll "get it." Right?
You decide for yourself. This e-shopper is taking his discretionary income elsewhere.
Tom Steinert-Threlkeld is Vice President of Ziff Davis Medias Business Media Group and a former Editor-in-Chief at Interactive Week. He can be reached at email@example.com.