When Ads Attack: A YouTube Windfall

Sometimes fate serves up more publicity than advertisers expect. Last Wednesday, a freak gust of wind loosed a barrage of field-side billboards on competing soccer teams in the Ellis Park stadium in Johannesburg, South Africa. By Sunday, the surreal footage of rectangular billboards floating over confused soccer players from the Orlando Pirates and the Black Leopards was on American broadcast TV--and, of course, YouTube too. Around the world, users from South Africa, Hong Kong and Australia also posted clips from broadcast TV news on YouTube.

The clip is perfect for YouTube: the TV cameras were perfectly positioned to capture not only the soccer game but the weird aerial ballet that began about five minutes after kickoff. In 30 seconds, the short clip delivers novelty and unexpected visual beauty. There's also comedy as the players, expertly dodging and weaving, suddenly realize the game just got far more complex--but continue playing anyway. By Sunday one YouTube posting by "fabregasfan" had attracted over 141,000 views.

It should be noted that two players and a referee were injured during the event--none seriously. However, the players and referee returned to the field, and play resumed for an additional two minutes before the match was cancelled due to lightning. Soccer fans were also quick to point out that the injured players may well have been faking.

So the athletes emerged mostly unscathed--but what about the advertisers? Does a jerry-rigged billboard flying across the playing field hurt a brand's image? Or is the event so bizarre that viewers won't even make the connection?

The brands on several billboards are clearly visible, including Metropolitan Holdings Limited, a leading African life insurance and financial services company, and Vodacom, one of Africa's biggest cellular carriers. In the background of the clip, still attached to their moorings, are other brands that could just as easily have taken flight, like Panasonic and Castle Lager, a popular beer. Also up for grabs (though not in flight) is South Africa's future as a world-class soccer arena: the Ellis Park venue is on the short list for the 2010 World Cup.

Various viewer comments on YouTube may throw fuel on the fire of advertiser paranoia: one YouTube user, Staszu, remarked: "This is SCARY. I guess it's nature's way of saying, 'We don't want adverts on the touchline!'" Another user, rwsmith29456, made the safety argument: "What an awful thing to have happen. Who tied down those signs anyway?" And Tagmus2000 added, "not sure S.A should host the world cup."

But for now, the last word has to go to Australia's Channel 10 Sports News anchor, who ventured: "The sponsors will be happy their logos are getting shown right around the world. The players? Well, no one was seriously injured, so in light of their evasive action... they can have our 'play of the day'!"

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