Buzz marketing is sometimes known as "stealth marketing," "viral marketing" or "word-of-mouth" marketing. It was originally a rather innocent tactic that encouraged employees of a particular manufacturer to spread the word among their friends about their employer's product or service. It soon grew into a broader set of practices that, in my opinion, are of dubious morality.

Buzz marketing has now been made into a recognized tactic by various public-relations types, with Web sites and guidebooks on the use of it, consultants on the subject and actual departments of buzz marketing in nearly every major public-relations firm. There is no doubt that some of these buzz marketers - not all of them, certainly - have begun placing favorable comments about their clients on user-generated travel Web sites. One commentator on the subject hints that one or two PR firms have lists of pseudonyms for fictitious people they append to the bottom of a rave review about a particular hotel or cruise ship.

Negative analyses of buzz marketing have appeared in recent issues of trade magazines such as Travel Weekly and consumer magazines such as Smart Money. Neither of these journals has made direct accusations that buzz marketers also transmit negative reports on travel properties or facilities, but it isn't difficult to infer that possibility. If you can e-mail an enthusiastic report to a user-generated travel Web site using the name of a person who doesn't exist, how difficult is it to send in a critical comment about a competitor as well?

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