Can't take a joke?

Web game site purveyor John Zuccarini declared war on a site depicting animal mutilation -- in cartoons. But is pet protection his real motivation?


Damien Cave
March 6, 2000 10:00PM (UTC)

The images of microwaved gerbils and eyes literally popping out of dog heads were so appalling, says John Zuccarini, that he began a campaign to protest the "animal mutilation" scenes he saw online. On Feb. 1, he posted a "political protest" page, and contacted advertisers like Sprint, Discovery Health and others, who quickly pulled thousands of dollars worth of banner ads from the site.

Funny thing is, the scenes in question are cartoons on the JoeCartoon site; and Zuccarini's protest appears to be more of a self-serving gesture than an honest attempt at online activism.

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JoeCartoon.com draws 1 million unique visitors each month -- visitors that Zuccarini apparently wanted. In November, he made a stab at intercepting some of that traffic by registering three related domains -- joescartons.com, cartoonjoe.com, joescartoons.com. One slip of the finger and a would-be visitor to JoeCartoon would end up at one of the typo URLs -- and be redirected to Zuccarini's Online Games site, which offers links to game pages and generates ad revenue for Zuccarini. (It also has the highly annoying habit of repeatedly opening new ad-filled browser windows on visitors' screens, just like sleazy porn sites do.)

When the folks at The Joe Cartoon Co. of Grand Rapids, Mich., discovered Zuccarini's typo sites in January, they asked him to take them down. When he refused -- offering instead to sell them for about $3,000 each -- Joe Cartoon Co. filed a lawsuit, charging that Zuccarini was engaging in unfair competition and violating the Federal Anticybersquatting Consumer Protection Act of 1999, which prohibits would-be profiteers from registering domain names with the intent of selling them for outrageous sums.

That's when Zuccarini, who says he owns about 1,000 domain names, got his dander up about the "mutilation and killing of animals" that the site depicted, and posted his diatribe against JoeCartoon's content on his JoeCartons site. "Many children are enticed to the Web site, not knowing what is really there, and then encouraged to join in the mutilation and killing through use of the Shockwave cartoon presented to them," he wrote in the protest message he posted the day he learned of the lawsuit. "As the owner of this domain name, I am being sued by joecartoon.com for $100,000 so he can use this domain to direct more kids to his vile and violent Web site."

In fact, the site's demographic falls into the 18 to 35 category, and the content is hardly pushing the edges of mainstream violence; it pales when compared even to the fictional "Itchy and Scratchy Show" that Bart and Lisa watch on "The Simpsons."

"It's very frustrating," says Arlene Scanlan, the agent of cartoonist Joe Schields. The protest has proved expensive too: While the ad-blackout inspired by Zuccarini lasted only a day, Scanlan estimated that company lost upwards of $10,000. (Neither Sprint nor Discovery Health could be reached for comment about their decision to pull ads.)

The skirmish between Zuccarini and Joe Cartoon Co., which has yet to be resolved in court, will likely prove but a hiccup in the ongoing battle between cybersquatters and companies who believe they own the right to certain domains. But it is also signals the power of Internet activism and raises a red flag about how easily advertisers can be scared into action. Did Sprint and Discovery Health really not know the content of JoeCartoon before Zuccarini pointed it out -- or were they afraid their names would be tarnished by angry cartoon animal-lovers who can't take a joke?

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Either way, the folks at Joe Cartoon Co. are left shaking their heads. As Scanlan puts it: "It's like protesting Warner Brothers because the Roadrunner gets hit with an anvil."


Damien Cave

Damien Cave is an associate editor at Rolling Stone and a contributing writer at Salon.

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