Not Quite What We Meant By Viral Marketing
By Mike Masnick, Wed Aug 18 19:00:00 GMT 2004

Hyped-up stories about phone-based viruses are hot this summer, and it doesn't help matters when a gaming company creates a "viral" marketing campaign that has people thinking their phones have been infected.

Video game advertising has often cut very close to (or gone over) the edge of good taste. Among the many publicity stunts, have been plans to buy advertising space on tombstones, getting parents to name their babies after video game characters, and even offering to pay speeding tickets for buyers of a car racing game. The latest, however, is angering anti-virus companies and IT managers by tricking people into believing their mobile phones have a virus.

It's not that hard to do, these days. The press has quickly hyped up a variety of non-stories about mobile phone viruses that turned out to be a lot less than originally described. However, since many people never saw the details, they have their guard up when it comes to the potential of mobile phone viruses.

Toss into that mix a promotional campaign for a new video game that encourages people to enter the phone numbers of friends for a "special" promotional message. Someone in the marketing department apparently took the term "viral marketing" a little too literally, and set up the campaign to blast the submitted phone numbers with text messages informing the recipients they had a virus on their phones. The gaming company stands by the campaign, saying that if users follow the URL in the text message to the website, it's obvious that it's a marketing campaign -- ignoring the fact that about the last thing most users are going to do on receiving a message telling them they have a virus is go check the website mentioned in the text message.

The message itself is a bit ambiguous: "Outbreak: I'm infecting you with t-virus, my code is ******. Forward this to 60022 to get your own code and chance to win prizes," followed up by pointing the recipient to the promotional website. Given all the recent talk about mobile viruses, however, it's not surprising that some would quickly jump to the conclusion that they had been infected. Anti-virus company Sophos is getting the word out that there is no virus, claiming the company has received numerous calls from concerned recipients of the message. Of course, this is probably just what the gaming company was hoping for -- even if it does end up causing problems for many users.

It is likely that real mobile phone viruses will get out in the wild at some point, and they may create quite a problem. However, using that concern to generate interest for a game seems to go a bit too far.