Millions of high-school students glancing at their phones on a recent Friday discovered a new, unavoidable distraction: If they took a photo with Snapchat, the app asked if they wanted to imprint it with Hollister’s logo and tagline, “Friday Vibes.”

The teen-retail giant had paid Snapchat for the ad and, more importantly, where it was aimed: Any phone geographically located near 19,000 high schools in the U.S. and Canada.

The “sponsored geofilters,” one of Snapchat’s most surprising new moneymakers, mark a uniquely invasive turn for modern marketing – allowing advertisers to put a virtual claim on parts of the physical world.

Snap a photo or video anywhere close to the big Christmas trees in New York, Dallas or a dozen other American downtowns, for instance, and you’ll be able to easily add a digital sticker of Hallmark’s latest ad campaign – perfect for saving, sharing and cheering on their corporate brand.

And the companies love it: “Our guests send out what are effectively ads to their (friend) networks,” said Dan Moriarty, director of social strategy and activation for Hyatt, the hotel giant that has blanketed its 80 Hyatt Regency hotels across the U.S. with an option to add the chain’s logo and latest slogan.

“It ties into the human truths of travel, and the freedom travel gives you,” Moriarty said. “For us, this is just an extra level of branding that you can put on top of what people are already sharing.”

Corporate giants increasingly baffled by how to reach the distracted masses are finding the most alluring promotional venue may also be the most ordinary one: Real life. And few services offer that level of marketing penetration quite like Snapchat’s latest salvo: Launched this summer at McDonald’s, where 14,000 American outposts are now covered, the “sponsored geofilter” program is now having its busiest month yet, with 14 companies currently onboard.

For Snapchat, a startup long on investment but short on actual revenue streams, the corporate deals provide a way to turn digital ad-slapping into actual cash. The companies pay an undisclosed fee to Snapchat, based on an expected number of views, and Snapchat sends back data on how all those potential customers viewed or shared.

For the companies, the deal lets them turn random customers into surprise brand ambassadors, sharing just how much they’re enjoying their Big Mac while a sticker of the burger floats over their face. It also helps the companies be everywhere that TV isn’t: Snapchat says each campaign averages between 30 million and 50 million views in a single day, a staggering reach for something far simpler than a crafted TV ad.


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