*Stonergram Buzz Could Burn Capitol RecordsCapitol Records Inc. is using a viral marketing "Stonergram" campaign to promote a new CD for its marijuana-touting rock group the Kottonmouth Kings.
After mailing about a month ago to a list of more than 10,000 names, the number of people who have forwarded the e-mail to friends has grown 2 percent to 3 percent each day. Though executives would not divulge response rates, they claim that the number of people who have forwarded the Stonergram is expected this week to surpass the number of names on the original e-mail list.
While the numbers suggest a formidable achievement, e-mail marketing experts and others think the recording giant is acting dangerously by tying itself to a campaign using images of marijuana that can be forwarded to children.
The campaign is likely to draw lawsuits and public relations problems from offended parents and children's watchdog organizations, according to Internet marketing lawyer Marc Roth at Brown Raysman Millstein Felder and Steiner LLP, New York.
"Viral marketing has a fine line," Roth said. "You want to create a buzz with the viral nature of e-mail marketing. But then it can become a double-edged sword in this case because of the content. The exposure can subject you to criticism and legal problems. Since you're rooted to the campaign, it can come back to bite you later."
Capitol promotions for the group include a contest for the most creatively designed Stonergram submitted to the company's Web site, Hollywoodandvine.com. The site's promotional wording for the contest includes:
"Hey Burnout! Wanna get buzzed with the Kottonmouth Kings and share their stash with your buds ... If you're the Warhol of weed or the DaVinci of dope, your artistic antics could earn you cool prizes personally created by the band!"
Robin Bechtel, senior director of new media at Capitol Records, Los Angeles, said her company believes the campaign does not send e-mail to children younger than age 13. She did not supply evidence to support her claim. She said that the e-mail addresses for the Kottonmouth Kings' campaign were collected from the group's previous promotional efforts, as well as through promotions for Capitol Records' other hip-hop, rap and modern rock groups.
In April, the Federal Trade Commission announced it would begin enforcing the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act. The law requires, with few exceptions, that Web sites collecting personal information from children younger than age 13 have parental consent. The FTC and consumer watchdog organizations will monitor for compliance, although the law has yet to be enforced. Violations could result in civil penalties of $10,000 for each offense.
Roth said the FTC could have a problem with how Capitol built its e-mail list.
"Regulators might see it as unfair or deceptive that a person -- child or adult -- could register at the Capitol site or with another band's site," he said, "and then receive e-mail from a music group that [they] have not expressed interest in.
"And then you throw in the fact that there are people out there who find illegal drugs really offensive, and it makes this case that much more likely to catch the attention of a government agency."
Companies such as Capitol should be held legally accountable for e-mails forwarded to children younger than age 18, said Linda Hodge, vice president of programs at the Parent Teacher Association, Chicago. The PTA has lobbied U.S. lawmakers to pass measures that would halt e-mail marketing containing images of sex, drugs or violence to children.
"They can say, 'Yeah, we didn't mean these to end up in the mailboxes of children,' " Hodge said. "But then they have to ask themselves, who are these campaigns really geared toward? Many times bands or groups with this type of content are marketed toward children and teen-agers."
Gomo.com, San Francisco, an e-mail marketing services company, helped develop the Stonergram campaign with Capitol.
Gomo President Scott Smith said he is confident that children younger than age 13 are not being sent promotional e-mail for the Capitol campaign. However, he admitted that once the e-mail is forwarded, it is out of the company's hands.
"I don't think anybody could guarantee parents that there aren't good little boys and girls who end up with the e-mails, because they are forwarded to all kinds of people," he said. "That's the beauty of all viral campaigns."
EmailChannel, Boca Raton, FL, a company that competes in the same e-mail services sector as Gomo, said it would never touch a project that may subject children to images of illegal drugs.
"Absolutely not," said John Lawler, president of EmailChannel and co-chairman at the Association for Interactive Media's Council for Responsible E-mail. "I have an 8-year old and a 12-year old, and I like to put my money where my mouth is. That's pretty much the end of any consideration I could have for this type of campaign."
Caroline Rustigan, spokeswoman for Capitol, refused to discuss marketing ethics or the possibility of public relations risks from the Stonergram campaign.
"This is about fun. That's the bottom line here," she said. "There are people who are going to complain no matter what you do. This is about entertaining people and not about anything else."