Wired’s Jargon Watch: Dark Marketing


In physics, there’s dark matter.

In financial trading, there’s dark pools of liquidity — sounds Gothic and unexpectedly poetic, actually.

Now there’s dark marketing. According to the July Wired’s “Jargon Watch” column, dark marketing is “discretely sponsored online and real-world entertainment intended to reach hipster audiences that would ordinarily shun corporate shilling. McDonald’s is the latest mega-brad to adopt this paradoxical promotional tool, with an alternate-reality game called The Lost Ring, nearly devoid of golden arches.

Interestingly, though Wired tries to report on the cutting-edge and things that will impact us in the immediate future, in this case it was scooped by — or, worse, got the idea for the column from — the International Herald Tribune. On April 1, 2008, the IHT published “McDonald’s tries ‘dark’ marketing.” (Hmm, April — that’s about the time the July issue of Wired would have been in production.)

Why did McDonald’s go dark?

“Our goal is really about strengthening our bond with the global youth culture,” Mary Dillon, McDonald’s global chief marketing officer, told the IHT.

Here’s an interesting point about an alternate-reality game, or ARG. “If an ARG is too clearly corporate or commercial, the gamers will not want to engage. It’s very important that the game be written in a way where the branding is not obvious,” Tracy Tuten, an associate professor at Virginia Commonwealth University who studies new-media marketing tools, told the IHT.

So how does McDonald’s measure the impact of its ARG investment?

By not revealing the cost of the campaign, except to say “in the context of the total Olympics, it’s just a fraction of what we’re doing.”

“As for measuring the company’s return on the investment, or ROI, Dillon said she would look at it as more of a learning experience.”

I guess that works for mega-corporations targeting consumers. I don’t see how dark marketing is efficient or effective when it comes to the B2B market.

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