When digital person-to-person file sharer BitTorrent decided to run a "we are not pirates" advertising campaign, they could have put videos on YouTube. They could have run online display ads. They could have posted on social media, started search or pay-per-click campaigns, created sponsored content or mobile apps.
But, as Advertising Age reported October 8, their media choice was none of the above. Instead, this high-tech, Internet-based company picked an advertising medium that goes all the way back to 1835, when one Jared Bell started making 9' x 6' circus posters.
"Mysterious, anonymous billboards started going up a few weeks ago in New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles," writes Eric Limer at Gizmodo, "All of them simple black text on a white background, spouting downers about regulating the internet and how great the NSA is. You know, the kind of ads The Man would take out."
Specifically, the "mysterious, anonymous billboards" read, "The Internet should be regulated," "Your data should belong to the NSA" and "Artists need to play by the rules."
Then, October 8, new billboards went up, looking like the originals, but with a BitTorrent logo and printed "graffiti" crossing out and replacing words from the original versions. So now the messages are that the Internet should be people-powered, whatever that means, that artists need options, and that your data belongs to you.
Atatvistic? Or smart?
Forgetting for the moment the merits of their strategy and message (which we'll get to shortly), the campaign couldn't have worked in any other advertising medium. Think about it.
Social media don't lend themselves to two-part messages or teases over extended time. After all, who sticks around long enough to read two-step messages? Or remembers what was up one hour, much less several weeks, ago?
Online display doesn't work, either. Sure, you can post a two-frame animated loop, but that answers the "what's this all about" question faster than anyone can even raise it.
What makes the campaign work, from a media standpoint at least, is that the "before" boards could stick around long enough to raise some curiosity. Then, passers-by, having seen the teasers for several weeks, would be more likely to notice the overnight changes.
'I am not a crook'
Unfortunately, the same thing can't be said about the message.
"The idea behind this campaign was to reintroduce the technology and the brand to a wider audience," BitTorrent VP-Marketing Matt Mason told AdAge.
Everyone wrongly associated the word BitTorrent with piracy, when it's a legitimate Internet technology that moves 40% of the world's Internet traffic, more than http.
The first stage of the campaign set up some of the technology issues we as a society are currently discussing, issues we know most people stand with us on.
The stage two reveal...[featuring the edits] is designed to show where BitTorrent stands on these issues, and to show that we are a company committed to building a better Internet, powered, owned and controlled by people as opposed to centralized servers and technology companies.
We believe in a distributed Internet, where the end user is in control of their data and creative work, and wanted to create a conversation with the general public about what that means.
That's all well and good, but the billboards' five- to seven-word headlines don't communicate a thing about a distributed Interned – except maybe to people at BitTorrent, in which event the billboards – and the in-house team who created them – are talking to themselves.
Also, in case nobody noticed, unlike digital media, it's kinda hard to carry on a conversation of any sort with a billboard.
It may also be that BitTorrent's wrapping itself in the flag of Internet freedom, truth, justice and The American Way is at best borrowed interest and at worst disingenuous.
Whatever else the message is, it's controversial.
'Awesome' or 'a steaming piece of cow pie'?
While Gizmodo calls the outdoor campaign "awesome," Adland rates them as "a steaming piece of cow pie.
The critiques of the advertising reflects the different posters' value judgments of BitTorrent itself.
Gizmodo, calling the campaign "rad" and the step-two edits "righteous," sees BitTorrent as a put-upon victim.
"Torrenting" is kind of a dirty word. It makes you think piracy, doesn't it? Well it shouldn't. Torrenting isn't illegal. It's not even morally ambiguous. It's just a way to send data, and it's awesome. Those are the points BitTorrent's trying to drive home with its rad new ad campaign.
As noted above, they're trying but not succeeding.
Over at Adland, poster kidsleepy takes the opposite view, based on his (or maybe her) belief the the problem is the Internet's freedom from government regulation:
What other industry do you know that has near zero regulation except Big Tech? We have Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) the Environmental Protection Agency, the Food And Drug Administration, and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to name a few of the regulators. Big Tech doesn't even police itself because if it did, it would be losing money by the truck load [sic].
In addition to being free from federal regulation, Big Tech commits a second cardinal sin – being profitable.
Torrent sites and google-owned [sic] sites like Youtube and Blogger etc, [sic] are Big Tech companies making butt loads [sic] of money off of [sic] in-market advertising while taking zero responsibility for compensating creators or regulating against piracy. They have replaced the record companies of the 70's, but they are still screwing the artists. The only difference is, it's much worse. Their capitalist-run-amok oligarchy is damaging more than just the music and media industry.
[I]f my data should belong to me, then why do file-sharing software like BitTorrent enable movies, books, art and software to be shared without consent of creator, let alone compensation? Oh right, because it's all 0's and 1's and not content. It's not Lady Gaga. It's data. I forgot.
The actual advertising comments – about the worthlessness of teaser campaigns, the "hack work" art direction and headlines that "prove how juvenile and simplistic the free-culture argument really is" – pale by comparison.
Wait till next year
"But BitTorrent isn't just being preachy with the new campaign," Ad Age says. "Recently, the company unveiled a way to torrent bundles of content supplied by the artists who made them, as well as a way to let people pay for torrents."
If that's such a big deal, it would've been nice if their billboards had tried to say something about that. But then, maybe they'll get around to it in all the ad executions that Mason says will roll out in "every imaginable medium" next year.