One Year Ago: The Sock Puppet Marketing Mirage


Originally published on August 17, 2000 and brought to you today as a time capsule.


This year’s Internet cause celebre, the Pets.com Sock Puppet, goes one better than last year’s major ploy, viral marketing.

For those of you who haven’t heard, viral marketing motivates every customer to refer friends and associates, turning customers into salespeople. The Sock Puppet is an advertising spokesperson who turned into a product. Call the phenom a “spokesproduct” for short.

Not only does the furry mascot persuade people to visit Pets.com to buy dog treats, he persuades Web surfers to buy the Sock Puppet himself. First presented a year ago, the Sock Puppet just now went on sale after thousands of fans sent e-mails asking about him.

Pets.com said that it was “very exciting” that the company mascot could generate his own revenue stream.

So why isn’t every online business represented by a goofy character singing off-key, a la the Sock Puppet’s rendition of “Spinning Wheel” in his TV ad? When an ad becomes a product, you’d expect more than a few dot-com copycats scrambling to keep up with the lead dog. There has to be a reason why.

Song Remains the Same

Hotmail and Passthison.com are the Web’s best viral marketing stories. However, electronic services lend themselves to customer referrals via e-mail.

The Web has not sprouted that many pet rocks and mood rings, trendy products that offered their own form of viral marketing. Those 70s trinkets motivated people to show and tell, so every customer became a salesperson. What motivates people to talk about and buy the Sock Puppet?

Surely his song is part of the reason. Although there aren’t a lot of celebrity spokepeople singing on TV about Net companies, how could anyone forget that bizarre lounge act from Priceline.com? The name-your-own price company had William Shatner, formerly Captain Kirk on Star Trek, in its commercials creating a song out of the company business model in a faux coffee house setting.

Priceline’s ad campaign proved once again that personalities can deliver marketing messages better than catch phrases alone. Or, it proved once again that weird stuff attracts attention.

Walk This Way

Perhaps the oddball personality factor is fueling the Sock Puppet’s sales. With the personality principle in mind, online meeting company WebEx hired drag queen RuPaul to boost its marketing campaign. WebEx executive Charles Orlando told the E-Commerce Times that the company picked the nearly seven foot tall (in heels) RuPaul “because we couldn’t think of anyone taller.”

The plan, according to Orlando, was “to take a hit for our category and grab attention.”

RuPaul generated enough media attention for WebEx to deliver its message to thousands of potential customers practically free of charge. Captain Kirk, on the other hand, is probably charging a lot for his high-tech song and dance.

With a spokesproduct, you’d think that Pets.com could name its own price. However, there’s an actor behind the puppet, and right now he’s on strike with the rest of the commercial actors. When asked to comment on the strike, Pets.com said it already has a lot of Sock Puppet film in the can. So the online store is able to continue building brand identity without spending much more — over the millions invested so far.

Wait a minute, is the Sock Puppet so popular because of a multi-million dollar advertising budget?

Fancy Mouse Pad

But no, you say. The public won’t buy into a fad stuffed down its collective throat. Just look at Barney. Truth be told, people like the Sock Puppet. His $2.5 million dollar Super Bowl spot received overwhelmingly positive response, and lots of expensive ads that day did not.

They really, really like him. Sounds like Hollywood. Okay, that’s it. The inside story on the talented Mr. Sock is a major Hollywood backer. In January, the Walt Disney Company became a part owner of the e-tailer. Note well that Disney is also a majority holder of ABC Networks. More than one analyst has said that the Mouse factor is what actually brought the Sock Puppet to life six months after his first appearance.

Draw your own conclusions about whether Disney had a say in the Sock Puppet’s round-the-clock airtime on ABC shows “Good Morning America” and “Nightline.” But no matter what you think about ABC, the backstage Mouse likely pulled some strings to get the puppet a job covering the Oscars on Mr. Showbiz, which is part of Disney’s Go.com.

Going Hollywood

In Hollywood and elsewhere, a solid pedigree trumps all else. Ultimately, the mascot’s success comes as no surprise when you find out he’s related to the Taco Bell Chihuahua and the Energizer Bunny.

All three are the offspring of advertising agency TBWA/Chiat/Day. Like his litter mates, the Sock Puppet has some adorable Madison Avenue idiosyncrasies. The winsome puppy likes to wear watches around his neck, and he “never leaves the house without a clean sock.”

So, the reason every e-tailer on the block doesn’t have a Sock Puppet in the house is that parts are not included. Cute gimmicks from an expensive ad agency, millions of dollars, and major media backing are required.

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