Some games aren

To quote a fine American, “It’s a fine line between clever and stupid.” That truth also applies to clever Web marketing.

Recently a Web site started making the rounds among journalists. With the provocative URL, the site promises big fun for frustrated, ink-stained wretches. Whack-a-Flack allows you to choose a public relations firm and bean annoying flacks (PR professionals) with paper aeroplanes when they rear their pretty heads.

To grasp why otherwise reasonable journalists would play such a game, you must understand the delicate relationship between journalists and PR. It’s a dance roughly akin to that between the cobra and the mongoose, but with less goodwill and mutual respect.

Scratch the surface and you’ll discover the company that created the game: e-tractions. The company is a start-up that made its debut at last year’s swanky Demo conference.

The start-up provides one-to-one marketing with interactive on-line entertainment to gather permission marketing data. For the non-buzzword-compliant: e-tractions’ on-line games gather demographic data about you.

It’s a clever, innovative, and ultimately unsettling, concept. A bit of harmless entertainment becomes a vehicle for targeted marketing. When I spoke to e-tractions CEO Mike Gauthier, he said that Whack-a-Flack was a proof of concept, a demonstration of the power of viral marketing – there was no client for Whack-a-Flack. But what an attractive set of data he’s been gathering.

According to Gauthier, the site was seeded with 150 names and has gathered 5,000 e-mail addresses in a week. The site has been mentioned on Jim Romenesko’s site for the Poynter Institute – a must-read for media types.

The same day I started writing this column, I attended a dinner with journalists and high-tech executives and Whack-a-Flack came up in conversation.

Gauthier said its experiencing 50 per cent daily growth. I’m sure PR professionals would be happy to pay top dollar to find that Walt Mossberg of the Wall Street Journal thinks someone at PR firm Edleman is arrogant or Dan Gilmour of the San Jose Mercury News finds the Horn Group to be butt-kissers. Or even yours truly’s innermost thoughts regarding the competence of Ogilvy, Schwartz Communications or Shandwick.

As a tool for gathering data on a market segment, the idea is clever. The very nature of the game pre-selects the proper audience: A journalist with no ill will toward PR professionals won’t even be tempted by Whack-a-Flack. That journalist is probably covering the Munchkin City beat in the merry old land of Oz, but that’s another story.

As a nod to professionalism, I go to some effort to keep my opinions about who’s good and who’s bad in the PR world to myself. So I’m uncomfortable with a game that tries to mine my innermost thoughts.

Gauthier is aware that some alarm bells might be set off by e-tractions’ concept, but he quickly points out that gathering data doesn’t have to violate people’s privacy. The company’s technology allows a client to set up rules for the game and dynamically deliver targeted content based on how someone uses the game. With no persistence of data, presumably there’s no privacy concern.

At the same time, these games are a kind of Trojan horse, sneaking their way into your own personal Troy. If you’re sensitive to privacy concerns, a standard data form sets off the alarm bells. But an on-line game just seems like an innocuous piece of fun.

The first rule of customer-friendly Web sites is providing an opt-out policy for demographic gathering tools. Does that also apply to games? I also wonder if COPPA (Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act) covers this ground? A game targeted at children would be an excellent – and potentially unscrupulous – way to gather data.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with gathering marketing data in new and interesting ways. But entertainment marketing highlights the importance for people to be savvy about the ins and outs of Web data gathering. Is e-tractions’ Whack-a-Flack a clever, creative, and sneaky way to gather data?

You bet your sweet flack it is.

Dugan is a senior research editor with InfoWorld in San Mateo, Calif. Contact him at