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Fear and loathing on the Web: "Gonzo" marketing thrives

Gonzo marketing is designed to grab your attention   

July 16, 1998
Web posted at: 4:45 PM EDT

by Christopher Locke

(IDG) -- At Web Advertising '98 last February, conference moderator and online marketing author Jim Sterne told the crowd to read a comic book. Using guerrilla art and razor-sharp wit, the inspired Weird Webventures in Online Advertising brutally mocks Internet hype. At the same time, the comic is part of that hype: It's a marketing tool for Eyescream Interactive, an agency whose clients include AirTouch Cellular, Universal Studios and Yoyodyne.

"Only the savviest attendees approached us afterwards," says Eyescream Interactive perpetrator Mark Grimes. "The rest were scared stiff." While the Web audience laughed, corporate marketers scratched their heads.

Welcome to gonzo marketing.

With "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas", Hunter S. Thompson established gonzo journalism, a genre in which high humor meets bad taste. But there's more to gonzo than shock value. "The writer must be a participant in the scene while he's writing it," said Thompson.

Apply this to the Web. How much immediacy do corporations convey? How much interest do they generate? Most seem terrified of online audiences. Lamely attempting to re-create TV, they offer vanilla content designed to offend no one.

But the Web isn't television. Individuals have strong opinions. That's largely why they came to the party in the first place. They couldn't care less about bland pages full of sterile corporate happy talk. And forget faux-hip; when suits get cute, everybody reaches for the barf bag.

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I produce Entropy Gradient Reversals, a satiric zine that delights in dissecting transparently clueless corporate Internet strategies. Though EGR subjects readers to bad language and a worse attitude, they cheer loudly when I bad-mouth the very companies for which many of them work. But EGR is gonzo in more than style. It's a two-year-old, 2,000-member focus group - my way of participating in the scene I write about.

Reader feedback often informs my advice to clients. One of these is, which helps jobseekers. CEO Kevin Johansen recently wrote a whacked-out fantasy in which K-Mart managers wager on which shopper will make it to the Blue Light Special first. It's totally nuts and has nothing to do with his business, so why did I encourage him to put it on the Web? Simple: because humor bespeaks character. People are sick of companies that are long on pitch but short on personality.

Steve Larsen, VP of marketing at Net Perceptions, regularly sends e-mail to a list of industry notables. His latest announced a major deal with Vignette, then pointed his contacts to my zine. "Every one of you should subscribe," he wrote. Given that EGR loves to offend, isn't this approach hugely risky? "Marketing is about real relationships," Larsen says. "I tell my friends about stuff I like, no matter how off-the-wall. They don't always share my tastes, but they end up knowing me better."

Taking such chances represents a powerful new form of positioning. It isn't spin; it can't be faked. And this is precisely what spooks so many companies: Getting exposure in this medium often means exposing yourself "industry wisdom" be damned. Gonzo marketing is about being part of the story, not loftily divorced from the everyday fray.

David Weinberger, veteran of Interleaf and Open Text, is now editor of the Journal of the Hyperlinked Organization. JOHO and EGR regularly vie to be weirdest, and a small but influential group of readers is beginning to constellate around this cross-site competition. In an attention economy, gonzo is a strange attractor. "The dogs have it right," says Weinberger. "Customers want to take a good long whiff. But companies so lobotomized that they can't speak in a recognizably human voice build sites that smell like death."

Organizations that believe in what they're doing - and are fearless enough to project that perspective online - could win unimagined loyalty. But corporations can't credibly communicate what they don't comprehend. Passion, commitment, engagement, humanity - qualities highly valued in this medium - are simply missing from most commercial Web sites. The audience is listening - for a heartbeat. Companies that haven't got one are about to flatline in the Web marketplace.

Before creating Entropy Gradient Reversals, Christopher Locke developed Internet businesses for CMP, Mecklermedia, MCI and IBM. Reach him at

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