Assume for a moment that you’re an artist. You get a call one day from somebody at Google. Good news: Google wants you to create a skin for its Chrome browser.

You ask, “What’s the fee?” The response: “There’s no money but you’ll get lots of exposure“. Deal or no deal?

This isn’t a hypothetical scenario for some artists. As The New York Times reports, artists approached by Google have been asked to create custom skins for Chrome for no pay; what Google does offer is ‘exposure‘.

For freelancers and consultants, such a proposition is not unheard of. There are plenty of prospective ‘clients‘ who need services and offer everything but cash as compensation for them. Especially in these tough times, something for nothing has obvious appeal.

The difference here, of course, is that Google is a healthy company that pulls in billions in profit every year. So it has little excuse for trying to save a few pennies. That has some of the artists it has approached upset about its offer. One, Gary Taxali, responded to Google with a drawing of another kind: the one-fingered salute.

Google’s efforts to recruit artists with the promise of exposure and not pay struck a chord in the artist community. That’s not surprising given the economic circumstances and the fact that, as the NYT points out, many artists have found themselves hurt by the decline of print media, which once supplied a steady stream of work.

For its part Google doesn’t see anything wrong with its proposition. It issued a statement:

While we don’t typically offer monetary compensation for these projects through the positive feedback that we have heard thus far we believe
these projects provide a unique and exciting opportunity for artists to
display their work in front of millions of people.

Is exposure an acceptable form of compensation? One illustrator the NYT interviewed, Melinda Beck, noted that gift cards she designed for Target and animations she developed for Nickelodeon are seen by millions of people. And yet Target and Nickelodeon paid for her services.

Google certainly has the money to pay artists a fair rate for their services. And in the case of the skins Google wants developed for its browser, it should probably realize that the odds that the exposure an artist receives for producing a Chrome skin is not going to directly translate into lots of business. It seems pretty unlikely that somebody will see a skin they like and say to themselves “I really like this. Let me find out who made it and hire them to do something for me“. If a company like Google won’t pay you, what exactly are you working for?

To be fair to Google, it isn’t alone in employing an exposure-as-compensation model. The Huffington Post, for instance, uses this model. And has taken a lot of flack for it.

Personally, I find the exposure-as-compensation argument lacking in most cases. While exposure can have value, it’s hard to figure out and it certainly doesn’t pay the bills. For an artist trying to make a living, the satisfaction of knowing that your work is being seen by millions doesn’t mean much when you are trying to figure out how to pay the mortgage or feed your family. A company that strives to ‘do no evil‘ should know that.

What do you think: is exposure acceptable compensation or are companies that offer exposure without cash exploiting workers?

Photo credit: Wrote via Flickr.