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Elian Viral Spoof Draws Eyeballs, Legal Threat

The now famous photograph of armed government agents seizing a terrified Elian Gonzalez was used last week in a controversial viral marketing ploy.

The campaign, which involved a politically charged online Flash video parody of the photo, prompted the Associated Press to threaten legal action against counter-culture Web site Newgrounds.com.

A hyperlink to the parody was passed virally via e-mail to promote the site.

The clip labeled “Elian – Wazz-up!!!” superimposed wooden-like puppet lips on the people in the photo that mouthed the words to the omnipresent Budweiser Wazzup commercial. Included with the parody were images of Fidel Castro and Janet Reno. It concluded with the message: “Stormtroopers. True.”

Users were encouraged to pass on the parody by clicking on a “Tell a friend about this movie” icon at the site. Visitors could see the parody by clicking on a link within the e-mail message.

“Nothing generates traffic better than a good controversy,” said Tom Fulp, founder and creator of Newgrounds.com, Philadelphia, before taking down the clip. “I’m going to soak up the hits.”

During the roughly 48 hours the clip was up, Newgrounds.com registered 198,535 page views and 110,865 visitor sessions — the bulk of the traffic coming on Thursday.

Earlier in the week, the site that had originally run the clip, Sixsite.com, had been told to remove the parody. It did so immediately. Newgrounds.com relented Thursday afternoon.

In its place was a note attacking the Associated Press and a copy of the letter that was sent to Fulp and the clip’s creator Sean Bonner. It stated: “You are exposing yourself to liability for copyright infringement that can include both fines and possible criminal penalties. We’ll go for whatever it takes to get our material out of your hands.”

The letter was signed by David Tomlin, assistant to the president of AP, and included his e-mail address. At press time, messages to the address were automatically bounced back. The original letter to Bonner included Tomlin’s phone number, thus leading fans of the clip and others to flood the AP with calls.

“Here’s what the story is,” said Jack Stokes, director of employee communications for the Associated Press, New York, “our copyright enforcement efforts, we don’t talk about that for anything. What’s unusual about this is somebody we asked to take the site down posted the e-mail.”

For all intents and purposes the campaign could be considered a success. “It’s horrible for branding, but I’m not the type of person they’re looking to draw. It will attract the kind of traffic they want,” said Jim Sterne, author of Email Marketing [John Wiley & Sons, 2000]. “It will also get them the bad press that they want.”

Viral marketing and tell-a-friend e-mail messages have come under fire as being spam by certain organizations and have even backfired on their creators. One viral marketing success story, NStorm generated 700,000 to 800,000 page views a day as a result of its viral e-mail based “Elf Bowling” game-only to then become the target of a virus hoax. Ironically, an equally far-reaching viral e-mail claimed the game would release a virus on Christmas Day.

Viral marketing can be useful, however, said Sterne. But, this particular example “cannot be condoned,” he said. “My first reaction is great that it works, but it’s too bad that it’s illegal.”

Tromaville.com, Inc., New York, which includes the Newground.com site in its coalition of 45 Web sites was not phased by the controversy. “We get that stuff. People send us material. Part of the mission of the new site is it is driven by content,” said William O’Donnell who oversees content for Tromaville.com, New York.

This is not the first time Anheuser Busch’s popular Budweiser commercial was parodied. A “Superfriends” version, featuring Superman, Aquaman and others, has been passed around the Web for months. “Look at the Superfriends. How many people saw that and said it’s the funniest thing ever?” said O’Donnell.

Newgrounds.com has drawn criticism in the past. The “Assassins” game on the site allows visitors to kill Bill Gates, the Backstreet Boys and the Spice Girls. The Scots People Against Child Abuse and others condemned the site for its violent nature.

Both sites draw their revenue from banner ads from companies such as Sears.com, DealTime.com, eHow.com and AutoTrader.com.

Fulp doubts there will be ramifications for posting the parody. “Nobody’s gotten sued. AP just likes to bully people,” he said. “The company that screams freedom of press to get these photos turns around and does something like this.”

By Friday, Sixsite.com had taken down the letter and posted links to the many other sites, including Playboy.com, that continue to run the clip.

Anheuser Busch could not be reached immediately for comment.

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