There was a time, not all that long ago, when you could tell a jeans ad apart from a music video and a Hollywood director would never put his name on a BMW commercial. But these days, no one advertises. They may promote, plug, or market–but advertising per se appears to be an endangered species. Americans have grown tired of being manipulated with oversize billboards and flashing lights–we want to think we make our own choices–and so the product- promotion industry has been forced to find more insidious ways to imprint their goodies on our gray matter. Now ads masquerade as art and other legitimate forms of entertainment–or, to put it in modern terms, they’re designed to blend in with the content.

The Internet has been at the forefront of this revolution, especially when it comes to hawking entertainment products. While you can blur the lines between ads and editorial on TV and radio and in magazines, you can’t erase them (at least not yet). But the Internet, where complete anonymity is just a falsified electronic form away, provides the advertiser with what he so desperately covets: the power to advertise without the knowledge of the advertised-to.

This past summer I traded in my critic’s license for some much-needed cash and an invaluable education in the world of Internet promotion. Rather than becoming a camp counselor or waiting tables like many of my college friends, I spent seven hours a day as an electronic mole, infiltrating message boards, chat rooms, and other on-line clubs and trying to generate word-of-mouth buzz for the artists on the roster of an independent publicity firm. When I wasn’t dropping Visine into my bloodshot eyes or squeezing one of those little beanbags to relieve hand cramps, I was wincing at the deceptive practices that formed the core of my job: I was paid to pose as a fan of a particular artist or genre of music and to recommend our clients to a specific community of fans to whom I thought the artist would appeal. Sometimes, when whoever I was promoting had a particularly low profile, I didn’t even have the luxury of being selective–I had to bomb as many message boards and chat rooms as possible in the hope that someone, anyone, would latch on.

The first step on the road to beginning a PR campaign on the Net was ob-taining a junk E-mail account, because most message boards require registration before posting–presumably to deter scum like myself. But it’s not much of a deterrent: Yahoo and Hotmail both offer free addresses, and they’re quick and easy to obtain. This allowed me to sign up with as many message boards as I could without cluttering my personal inbox with “registration confirmation” messages or revealing my real name. (I’m not using it here either.)

As I was told from day one, a message is only as effective as its subject line. After all, if no one will read it, it’s completely useless. For the standard high-traffic artist message board, these sorts of things worked reasonably well:

“Hey, are there any _____ fans in here?”

“Do you like _____ ?”

“While you’re waiting for the new _____ album…”

In the blanks, I’d insert the name of an artist with the broadest possible appeal in the particular genre. On a hip-hop message board, Tupac or the Notorious B.I.G. were sure things; likewise Nirvana and Nine Inch Nails were attention grabbers in most nu-metal and alt-rock forums. The message itself usually looked something like this:

Hey, I really dig Nine Inch Nails and thought some of you might be interested to know about _____. They sound quite a bit like NIN, but never in a derivative or predictable fashion. Their new CD, which is out in November, is sure to be the shot of originality that industrial music has needed since NIN’s heyday. If you want to hear a clip, go here: Thank me later.

Generally this type of post would generate a flurry of activity. A fair number of the people who replied would write something like, “Yeah, dude, Trent Reznor is the shit.” Every so often, I’d get a “Hey, I’ll check that album out.” And if I got really lucky, a conversation about the client would commence.

The job got trickier when I had to post in more intimate music-related forums, where many of the participants knew one another and were aware of swine like myself. A post like the one used above could result in no responses or, even worse, a volley of invectives like “Get the fuck off our board, you fucking pathetic PR prick.” I quickly found that the best subject lines were the ones that said the least–something as simple as the name of the band I was promoting usually got the job done. I also had to pay special attention to the content of the message, switching my tone from that of a fan to that of a skeptic:

Hey, so a friend gave me _____’s last LP, _____, a couple weeks ago and it hasn’t left my CD player since. Anyone heard any of their more recent songs? Is the new album as good as the last one? I scoured the Internet and the only info I could find was this: Thanks in advance for any help.

Most boarders never questioned the authenticity of such a message, and yet it performed all the same functions as the one I used on the high-volume boards, imparting all the necessary information and, in the best case, getting people to discuss the band.

Sometimes the job got downright absurd. I was periodically asked to “capture different demographics,” which meant reaching people who would never even think of visiting a music message board or chat room–from bed wetters to frustrated parents to people who paint rocks (I’m not making that up–they have an annual convention). Thinking of a way to bring up a band logically in those sorts of contexts was a feat unto itself. Of course this type of infiltration was the most morally repugnant–I peddled CDs to desperate insomniacs as a cure for sleep deprivation, to rabid Tolkien fans as role-playing background music, and to would-be Don Juans as an aphrodisiac. Other, more ambitious summer grunts suggested on teen message boards that one CD might be effective in pissing off mom and dad and another was a good sound track for getting high in the garage, but I felt I had to draw a line somewhere.

Do I feel guilty? Perhaps. Maybe that’s the reason I wrote this in the first place.

Or maybe I wrote it because BMW, Yahoo, Hotmail, Visine, and Nine Inch Nails paid me to use their names in an article.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Mike Werner.