ASA not amused by film-makers’ “Shifty” viral marketing prank

Claire Walker

The makers of the acclaimed new Brit film “Shifty” have been rapped over the knuckles by the Advertising Standards Authority over an innovative viral marketing campaign which breached the database practice provisions of the CAP Code. Now, Datonomy would never, ever condone the breaching of data protection rules…but all the same we like to think Datonomy readers have a sense of humour and might like to share the joke…

The film’s website now invites users to “Stitch up a mate”, Shifty-style:

“Need to get back at a friend? Or do you simply enjoy stitching your mates up?
Use Shifty’s classic wind up techniques, then sit back and watch them sweat!
Upload a picture of your friend into official looking CCTV footage
identifying them in a local gang of drug users. Post it to your facebook profile and watch them brick it!”

The campaign was toned down by the (suitably contrite) Metrodome Group plc within a few days of its launch to avoid offence. However, in its original form, which triggered the single complaint to the ASA, it worked as follows. The unfortunate friend’s email address having being submitted, he or she would then receive an email from the email address communitydrugsteam@ukgov.org.uk headed “CRIMINAL INVESTIGATION”.

Now, as Datonomy readers will instantly recognise, viral marketing techniques whereby users supply other people’s email addresses without their consent is frowned on by both the Information Commissioner as a breach of the Privacy and Electronic Communications (EC Directive) Regulations 2003 and by the ASA whose British Code of Advertising, Sales Promotion and Direct Marketing or CAP Code reflects the same opt-in requirements for email marketing. The ASA has made a number of adjudications on marketing practices which breach the opt-in provisions of the Code. Marketers should remember that in practice an adverse ruling by the ASA (and attendant adverse publicity) is more likely than formal action by the Information Commissioner if they breach the rules. Here is the detail of the ASA adjudication:

“The e-mail was in the form of a letter personally addressed to the recipient, and text at the top of the letter stated “N.B. A copy of this notice has been sent to the postal address at which you are currently registered under the electoral roll.” Further text in the body of the e-mail stated “In a recent operation a subject was arrested with a quantity of class A drugs in their possession. During the post arrest interview the suspect supplied your name to us as a habitual narcotics user. As such you are now at risk of a criminal prosecution based on the information supplied. However, as part of the Community Drugs Team initiative we are attempting to work with and help people who may have issues with drug use. Under this new initiative it may be possible to prevent further investigation if you are willing to participate in the newly launched ACT AGAINST DRUGS campaign, and submit to counselling and weekly drug testing. If you wish to participate please click on the link below to arrange a date, time and location for your initial interview and first weekly test [the website http://www.community-drugs-team.org.uk/ was given]. If you feel information has been wrongly supplied or wish to appeal against this notice click on the link below [the same website address was given]. If you fail to respond to this e-mail within 7 days of receipt please be aware that this will then become an official matter and there will be a strong likelihood of criminal investigation. It is our aim to help you in the most discreet way possible, however we will require your full co-operation”. The letter was signed on behalf of the “London Community Drugs Team.”

The recipient was put out of his or her misery when they clicked on either of the links in the email and directed to the film’s website which stated “You have just been stitched up by your friend. If you can’t spot a shifty email when you see one … To stitch up your own friend click here.”

With friends like those, wonders Datonomy, who needs enemies? But this Datonomist, for one, will certainly be checking out “Shifty” at a cinema near her soon…

The Information Commissioner’s guidance on the use of viral marketing techniques is contained within the PECR Guidance For Marketers.

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