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I'll wear what she's wearing

Sarah Jessica Parker in Steve & Barry's PR campaign for "Bitten"

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Kai Ryssdal: According to the folks who track this at Neilsen, businesses spent $136 billion on advertising last year. That's a boatload of money in any case. More so when you consider how tough it can be to know whether advertising even works. Not to mention this being the age of the TiVo, when fast-forwarding through commercials has become an art form.

So some retailers are turning to a related field to get consumers attention, and they're hardly spending anything on ads at all. Our New York bureau chief Jill Barshay has the story.


Jill Barshay: Steve & Barry's is hardly a household name in fashion. It's best known for selling cheap tees, sweats and sneakers. The company launched a new women's clothing line called "Bitten" last month. It primed the market by releasing a video on YouTube that featured one of New York's favorite celebrities.

Sarah Jessica Parker: Hi, I'm Sarah Jessica Parker, and you're watching S&B TV.

Parker's character on Sex in the City wore Chanel tops and Jimmy Choo stilettos. So discount clothing didn't look like a natural fit.

Parker: You know, I confessed to not having known anything about the company. I, along with a lot of my friends, we were just unfamiliar with Steve & Barry's.

Most of Parker's fans were probably unfamiliar with Steve & Barry's as well. The company hoped the video would change that. They wanted fans to discover the video on their own, and e-mail it around to their friends. And that was that. No TV commercials, no glossy magazine ads, no billboards.

Howard Schacter, the chief partnership officer at Steve & Barry's, said he used no ads at all:

Howard Schacter: The primary communications tool that we use to get the word out is public relations. Sarah Jessica Parker and the Bitten brand in just the past month has appeared on the Oprah Winfrey show for about a half an hour, she was on the cover of Glamour magazine.

The company even landed an eight-page fashion spread in Oprah magazine. But it paid nothing for the privilege.

Schacter: To have eight full pages in that magazine, the advertising equivalency would be about $800,000.

Sarah Jessica Parker Fan: She was so nice and she's gorgeous.

Crowds mobbed Steve & Barry's New York City store in June when Parker showed up to sign autographs. Steve & Barry's public relations team arranged similar launch events all over the country. Parker only attend the one in New York. But Rachel Brenner, a Steve & Barry's PR official, had a special treat for some of women in Texas who'd been waiting for three hours.

Rachel Brenner: We surprised some of the first people in line with a phone call from Sarah Jessica.

Steve & Barry's repeated the cell-phone shtick with early bird customers around the country. That generated mini press conferences and even more stories in blogs and in the local press.

Schacter says Steve & Barry's landed $50 million worth of free publicity last year. He says this year, the company will double that. He says the all-PR approach is cheaper than buying ads, and it's more effective.

Schacter: You're gonna be much more apt to listen to that fashion reporter in your daily newspaper who says, "I've tugged, I've pulled, I've looked I've investigated — this is a great shirt, you should check it out." There's a lot more credibility coming in there than if we placed an ad that said, you know, we've got great quality product at great prices, you've gotta come on in.

But PR pros say it's dangerous to dump advertising altogether. Richard Edelman runs one of the largest PR firms in the country.

Richard Edelman: PR depends on stories. And once there's news out, then of course, the media wants to go on to the next piece of news. PR can be the runway to trust, and then advertising can do the repetition and the reach.

So far, Steve & Barry's is thriving on PR, thanks to Parker's star appeal and the seductive message that fashion can be affordable.

But the approach could run out of steam. Almost a year ago, the company did a deal with basketball's Stephon Marbury to sell $15 high-tops. Marbury's star may have waned since then. Schacter admits he has placed a few ads in basketball magazines.

In New York, I'm Jill Barshay for Marketplace.

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