Free to break the rules, big business exploits internet loophole to produce adverts with subversive messages

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The Independent Online

A new brand of advertising has arrived on the internet. It is underground yet big-budget and, best of all for the advertisers, beyond the reach of any official sanction.

While advertisements on television and in the press are regulated by a code that maintains "advertisers should not make speed or acceleration claims the predominant message of their advertisements" and "advertisers should not portray speed in a way that might encourage motorists to drive irresponsibly or to break the law", no such limits apply at BMW's own film site,

There, speed, acceleration and irresponsible driving are the key elements in a series of big-budget - yet internet-only - films, with stars including Gary Oldman and Clive Owen.

But the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), which regulates the printed press and "banner" adverts that appear on websites, admits that its remit specifically excludes adverts on companies' own sites or "adverts" that consumers choose to download.

"Anything that's originally e-mailed to people, no matter how limited the number, falls under our remit," said Donna Mitchell, a spokeswoman for the ASA. "But if you choose to download it from a website, then we treat it as a choice you have made to view it."

That's music to the ears of many advertisers looking for cheap ways to attract viewers. "Viral marketing" campaigns, as they are known, are increasing in number and, even when they are unlikely to offend, getting them to a computer screen can be far quicker and cheaper than doing the same for a television screen.

"A TV ad can cost £1m to put together," said Michael Davey, the customer relations manager for the car manufacturer Mazda UK, which has produced a series of internet-only adverts for its Mazda 2 car. "Then you have to pay for the airtime ... Getting a little movie ad on to the Net is hundreds of times cheaper."

Michael Nutley, the editor of the online marketers' bible New Media Age, said: "We are seeing viral ads being produced that are more and more professional, like TV ads. The only criterion is that, if it's funny or an enjoyable game, then it will get forwarded. Otherwise it'll flop. I do get the sense that companies, and charities, are starting to wake up to the possibilities of doing things in video that they would never be able to show on TV because of the censors."

For example, Mazda UK recently made an internet-only ad, called "Parking", which it screened on its site and then "seeded" to other sites, known as watering holes, for people who like witty clips.

In the advert, a female driver approaches a parking space with a builder's truck at one end. "She won't get in there," chuckles the male builder standing by the truck. The woman drives off, then reappears, reversing up the planks on the end of the truck, over its roof, and neatly into the space.

"We've had half a million views of that one that we know about," said Mr Davey. It topped the "funny e-mails" charts at Lycos for three weeks. "People have more access to the Net than a few years ago, so from that perspective it really works," he added.

There are no plans to re-use the advert on television; it would require re-shooting it to meet Mazda's TV production values, and it might fall foul of the admonition that "vehicles should not be depicted in dangerous or unwise situations in a way that would encourage irresponsible driving". But Mazda has decided to use the advert, on the Net only, in 13 other countries.

Sometimes, though, the virus can spread out of control. A couple of months ago there was a huge buzz over an advert that appeared to show a cat getting caught on a ceiling fan in a house before being thrown against a wall. It appeared to be for a Nokia videophone - prompting a wave of angry questions, to and inside the company, about who had sanctioned it. The answer turned out to be that nobody had. It wasn't a Nokia advert. But the suspicion was that it had been produced in one of Nokia's 52 worldwide ad agencies - probably in Australia (matching the accents on the clip) - which were hoping that it would be approved by Nokia.

Antony Wilson, Nokia Australia's head of marketing, said: "Agencies make a variety of options, many of which will never get shown to the client because they don't fit the client's brief or advertising guidelines. It is possible this was one of those." But he added: "I see it as damaging for our brand - it breaks all of our advertising guidelines."

But the "ad" is still there, archived on thousands of websites. It may not have been Nokia's - but the company name appears at the end every time it is played. A flop? Not by the standards of internet advertising, where, as Oscar Wilde put it, the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.