Marketing is the worst, but it enables a lot of cool stuff. I think

By Erin Griffith , written on March 20, 2013

From The News Desk

This idea -- marketing sucks, but it pays for cool stuff -- looped endlessly through my mind in Austin last week. Something like:

God, marketing is awful.

But also, teehee, look at that ridiculous Grumpy Cat installation (sponsored by Friskies).

I should Instagram it.

Wait, no, don't let the marketers win. If you show that you enjoy marketing, you're only giving them permission to bombard you with more of it.

But who cares? Big evil corporations run the world blah blah Andy Warhol illuminati YOLO whatever.

But brands have ruined our perfect SXSW tech festival with their ugly money!

Again, get over it.

And so on.

I'm explaining what everyone already knows -- SXSW Interactive is no longer just a festival for innovators, technologists, and builders. I'm not sure it ever was, but those present in the early days of the event sure love to say so. Either way, it's now overrun with publicists, agencies, and brands. Noise. I'm told Unilever sent 60 people, for cripe's sake.

While in Austin, I struck up countless conversations with attendees beginning with the question, "Why are you here?" Most of them had come with a specific goal in mind: meet potential clients, meet potential partners, spend quality time with contacts they don't see often, share ideas at Workshop X or Meetup Y. Get in front of Important Person Z.

Those reasons all made sense to me. And the people I followed up with all said the event had proven its worth to them many times over. No, the ones I was most perplexed by were those who said they were at SXSW "to have a presence."

My best guess is that this means they felt they needed to be there because it sends the right message -- of course we are here; we belong here. In turn, they felt that not being there sends the wrong message. And in order to rise above the noise and make it worth their while, they had to do something creative and utterly wacky. And that's how we wind up with the over-the-top shitshow that is marketing at SXSW.

There were the big, cool things that sponsors and brands made possible. There were big, lame things that sponsors and brands made possible. There were tiny just-launched apps desperately groveling for attention in clever ways. There were big apps that have fallen to the bottom of the hype trough, throwing elaborate parties because it is expected, and because they are fighting for relevance. There was a 2am app launch party in an actual crack house that would have made Stefon proud.

So this is my round-up of some of the good, bad, and just plain awful marketing I saw last week. It's about a week late, so the "fighting for relevance" theme is apropo. The most ironic thing it is that, a week later, it's the worst ones that stick out in my memory. The headline of this article may be true, but looking over this list, I'm not sure it applied at SXSW this year.

The Good

Oreo is still riding high on its big Superbowl moment. The company had a giant installation that asked passersby to pose for a pic with a package of Oreos in front of a digital background of local restaurant. Guess the name of the restaurant, and win a prize package. Simple enough, but it had a line of people each time I walked past.


Image via Clickz

Grand St. handed out scratch-off lotto tickets for decent-sized sums of cash to spend on their site of crowd-sourced gadgets.

Dwolla gave out what it knows best -- money -- in the form of hidden Golden Tickets distributed to influencers, who left clues on Twitter and were informed when their ticket was claimed.


That yam troll thing impressed at least one blogger. Short version: Tri-net, a fairly nuts-and-bolts cloud company, sent yams in the mail to people before the event, telling them to stop by Yamtrader's booth for a $50 Amex card. When they arrived they learned there is no such thing as Yamtrader, but here is Tri-net anyways. Total bait-and-switch, but amusing nonetheless and no more shameless than anything else out there.

Highlight, relevant or not, handed out popsicles from a shopping cart with an adorable English bulldog. It was simple and effective.


Image via

GroupMe did its grilled cheese tent again. Also simple and effective.

TaskRabbit drove around this absurd vehicle all week. I have no idea why. But it's in the "good" category because of its resemblance to the Dumb and Dumber van and the attention to detail (fur on the hubcabs even!).

409472607035761150_4626959Image via collemcvoy on Instagram 

Game of Thrones pedicabs and Catch-a-Chevy cars -- more reliable than the promises of free rides from Uber and Sidecar.


The Not-So-Good

Anything involving a person in an inexplicable costume, to which I ask, why?



Again, why? Or maybe this guy was just on his way to the office.


Again, WHY?!

Image via CloudServer, Twitter 

The printing of peoples' faces into latte foam. Funny idea, slight letdown on the execution. Next year, GE.


Capes with words on them. I don't know, either.


Daisy Duke girls hula-hooping and "woo-ing" at 9am. SPRING BREAK!


A costumed man of unclear association is responsible for this quadracopter. It was very cool, but since I walked away not knowing who it was associated with, it counts as a marketing fail.


Doritos built this insane stage that was apparently powered by Tweets (what does that mean?). This is what it was supposed to look like.


Here's what it actually looked like.


Image via Brooklyn Vegan

The Worst (and for that reason, most talked-about, and most memorable)

Bang With SXSW. The festival organizers were not impressed with Bang With Friends' sleazeball promotion and issued a swift cease-and-desist. I guess SXSW isn't into safe sex?


Image via Tomprom

Grumpy Cat, now the mascot of Friskies. This stunt got more than 13,000 mentions on social media. Not everyone (including me) was into the idea, least of whom was Grumpy Cat.



Lyft's silly idea to offer piggyback rides turned a little pervy when its male volunteers wore the company's trademark pink mustaches and solicited "mustache rides" to passersby. Ew, Lyft. You once seemed so wholesome.


Image via Lyft

[Feature Image via Mashable]