Viral ads are meant to create word-of-mouth buzz about a product among consumers, often using venues such as message boards, blogs, MySpace pages, YouTube and certain non-computer methods.
In the videogame realm, full-on viral websites have been created, one of the most famous being the ilovebees campaign for Halo 2. Sony commissioned a campaign recently involving PSP graffiti painted on rented walls, which created a stir. Sometimes marketing firms also hire individuals to post on message boards or blog comment sections to talk about how "dope" X game is, and how he's "gots ta have it."
The problem, according to the FTC and ad watchdog Commercial Alert, is that often viral ads and their components do not reveal their paid relationship with the product they're hyping. An article in the Washington Post outlines how consumers can be deceived by such methods.
According to the report, the FTC will investigate instances of viral advertising on a case-by-case basis where the relationship between the endorser and the seller isn't disclosed. Violators could be slapped with a cease-and-desist order, fines and substantial civil penalties "ranging from thousands of dollars to millions of dollars."
FTC associate director for advertising practices Mary Engle said in a staff opinion, "We wanted to make clear . . . if you're being paid, you should disclose that."