The fantasy of “Dark Marketing” and its implication to ad agencies – not to mention society in general.

October 12, 2015

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“I just lost my daughter’s college fund on Fan Duel!”

Lot of hullabaloo over the legality/morality of online fantasy league sites, Fan Duel and Draft Kings…

In 2011, the FBI shut down two of the most popular online gambling sites, Poker Stars and Full Tilt Poker, accusing their owners of money laundering and other nefarious activities. According to the Chicago Tribune, eleven people were arrested and indicted by the Feds. And they’re gunning for more. Online visitors were greeted with a message saying, “This domain name has been seized by the F.B.I. pursuant to an Arrest Warrant,” and an enumeration of federal anti-gambling statutes and penalties.” Talk about a buzz kill.

While I’m not a gambler, the fantasy league story interests me because several years ago a popular gaming site approached my agency to pitch for its marketing. We could have used the business but I’m happy to say we begged off, mostly for fear of being accomplice to criminal activity. But not before attending a briefing session with the client. Like I said, we needed the revenue; it was hard walking away.

I’ll never forget their presentation to us and, in particular, what the CMO called the advertising for his business: “dark marketing.” Dark marketing, he said, was advertising something that in “certain contexts” was illegal. He likened it to selling alcohol and cigarettes. Yet, in a very real way the term implied heavier baggage and bigger risks, more akin to prostitution and gun running. Honestly, any company that has to run its business “off shore” clearly has issues.

It was a creepy presentation but a titillating one. I felt dirty for having participated and yet also provoked. I knew gambling was considered a vice and a sin. But I also knew the opportunity for doing brilliant creative was high. Edginess equals awards. In the end, the inherent sleaziness of the brand, coupled with a stern caution from our legal department, caused us to bail.

Yet, this notion of dark marketing stuck with me. When it came to making a buck, or winning awards, just how far were agencies willing to go? One wonders what, if anything, will happen to these sites marketing partners. Beyond morality issues, are there consequence to dark marketing? With marijuana rapidly becoming legal and establishing brands, it seems Pandora’s Box is opening ever wider. Recently, Fan Duel and Draft Kings hired big time agencies. We’ll see the fruits of their “dark marketing” soon enough.

More controversy is sure to follow. Wanna bet?

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