Illustration of Derek Powazek by Adam Ellis

Ethics in Online Advertising

So there’s this video game called Guitar Hero that the kids are into these days. A few days ago, a video appeared on YouTube showing someone “playing” the game while riding a bike. Today a videogame blog found out that that the video was produced by an ad agency. (Score one for bloggers doing real journalism.)

Internet impresario Ze Frank, who posted the video to his site a few days earlier, today asked his readers, “does it detract from its value?” Here’s what I think.

Short answer: Yes.

Longer answer: It’s not that it’s a commercial, it’s that it’s a hidden commercial. It’s not the art, it’s the ruse.

Newspapers and magazines figured this out a long time ago. That’s why they put “ADVERTISEMENT” at the top of the page when an ad could be mistaken for genuine content.

The thing these marketeers constantly miss is that, had it been labeled an ad, people would still have talked about it, linked to it, enjoyed it. It’s only their ad man inferiority complex that made them dress up an ad in a “user-generated” costume.

One thing pretending to be another is always a betrayal of trust. If these brands really want to engage communities online, they’re going to have to learn how to stop lying to us and start interacting honestly with us.

Would it really have been so hard for the video’s description so say: “Yeah, we’re an ad agency, but we also love Guitar Hero, so we made this video.” I submit that it would have gotten just as much attention, without all the negativity that will surely come from the revelation that it was a sham.


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Hi, I’m Derek. I make awesome community-centric web stuff. I sometimes post things to Flickr and Twitter. I’m mostly harmless. More.





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