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Draw Something gets players to sketch their own ads

Diabolical or clever? Social game takes player submissions of hockey-themed pictures in a new advertising deal with the NHL, as seen in these screenshots from the leagues's Pinterest page

It was the best thing my wife had ever drawn. The subject was an elderly man with horn-rimmed glasses, a distinctive goatee, and a bolero tie, his visage emblazoned in white and black on a red bucket. It was KFC's Colonel Sanders, of course, and it was as fine a piece of art as I'd ever seen rendered by another player in OMGPOP's smash hit guess-a-sketch game Draw Something.

What I didn't know was that it was also an ad. Or at least a prelude to one.

If you're not among the 50 million people who have downloaded this hugely popular sketching app, here's how it works: You're given a choice of three things to draw; something easy (like "shirt"), something a bit harder (maybe "edge") and something more challenging ("steal"). Once you finish your masterpiece your playing partner attempts to guess what you drew before taking a turn at the virtual sketchpad herself. There are no time limits. You work together as partners to rack up streaks (bragging rights: my wife and I have now correctly identified each other's drawings 237 times and counting) and earn coins that can be spent on new colours for your drawing arsenal.

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The concept is far from new, but it's well executed, often laugh-out-loud funny, and helps us satisfy a basic human urge that most people largely ignore upon graduating middle school.

The first time I was prompted to draw a recognizable brand – Nike – I thought nothing of it. I'd already been given the option of drawing famous personalities from Beckham to Bieber, so what was a brand? Plus, it would be a snap. Everyone knows the swoosh. A few days later I jumped on the opportunity to draw a picture of Doritos. A bunch of orange triangles falling out of a red bag. Easy-peasy. By the time my wife got around to sketching an image evocative of KFC, drawing images of brands seemed a fun and natural part of the game.

However, according to a report from Ad Age Digital, these brand words were part of an experiment to see how Draw Something users would take to seeing commercial options mixed in with more traditional nouns and verbs.

Turns out most people don't mind at all.

Now, just in time for the playoffs, OMGPOP's new owner, Zynga , has upped the stakes by signing an official advertising deal with the NHL. That means Draw Something players will now see the occasional hockey term popping up in their word lists, though nothing too egregious. Some examples include "jersey," "puck," and "slapshot" (I had "hat trick" pop up over the weekend, but non-hockey fan that I am, all I could think to draw was a rabbit coming out of a hat, so I skipped it).

Normally, any sort of in-game advertising raises my hackles, but I have to say this clever strategy beats the heck out of intrusive banner ads, and likely works a whole lot better for advertisers, too. I'm still feeling bloated from last night's drumstick dinner.

However, Zynga had better sign up advertisers while it can. The BBC reports Draw Something's bubble of popularity may have just popped. The number of active users playing the game dropped by almost a third in April, falling from 14.3 million people to 10.4 million.

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Alas, this peculiar little advertising experiment, designed specifically for OMGPOP's game, may end up dying on the drawing board.

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