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Live My Product!

Viral marketing using alternate-reality games brings advertising into the 21st century

By David King

You can hear it ringing in the distance, a pay phone somewhere down the block from you, chiming out in the dark. You were told to answer it at 8 PM, and here you are at 8:01, splashing through puddles, trudging through rain-drenched streets, trying to get to what you assume must be the last remaining pay phone in your city. And then, you are there with the dirty receiver pressed up against your ear; you listen intently, a notepad by your side, capturing every detail, looking for any clue. Then you think to yourself, “I did all this for an advertisement?”

This isn’t just advertising; this is viral marketing, what some would call the future of advertising. While viral marketing has been in the news lately—because of a late-January Aqua Teen Hunger Force campaign that brought Boston to a halt with Lite Brite-like signs that were mistaken for bombs—the future of viral marketing will be based less on stunts, and more on interactivity and immersion.

In 2004, this is how 42 Entertainment got hundreds of thousands of fans of the “Halo” video game to flock to its advertising campaign for “Halo 2.” Rather than cramming their campaign down consumers’ throats, 42 Entertainment started a Web site called ilovebees.com, which had the appearance of a bee enthusiasts’ site having been taken over by a stranded, alien, artificial intelligence. From there, the advertiser drew fans through an alternate-reality game that required players to rush to pay phones around the world every week for the latest installment of radio plays, each of which would reveal one more clue about the story, one more Internet site, one more puzzle to solve. When the game was finished, some players had unlocked the opportunity to play the game early, and “Halo 2” was an astounding success, with sales of $125 million in its first day of release alone.

According to Elan Lee, vice president of 42 Entertainment, the idea for this approach to advertising came about during a conversation he had while working at Microsoft with 42 Entertainment’s future president, Jordan Weisman. “We were talking about the future of gaming, and Jordan’s phone rang; and before he answered it he made the offhanded comment, ‘Wouldn’t that be cool if that was a game calling me right now?’ We started talking about how you make it so that a game, rather than using a computer console . . . used your life as a game board.”

While both Weisman and Lee come from video-game backgrounds at Microsoft, they have demonstrated that their approach to viral marketing, which employs complex, alternate-reality games (ARG), is effective in capturing audiences for all sorts of products, including film and music. Their first project was an ARG to promote Steven Spielberg’s film A.I. Fans could decode Web sites and phone numbers in the movie poster to enter a murder mystery based on the themes of the movie.

“For almost all the products we create, we immerse the user in a narrative,” says Lee. “We make them feel like their own life intersects with the world of whatever product they are experiencing. Our bread and butter is narrative.”

The current narrative 42 Entertainment probably is responsible for (Lee won’t comment on an active campaign) involves the distant future, when the government will poison the water with a mind-controlling substance called Parepin; a handlike figure will appear from the sky, sending fear into the minds of the populace; and our government will provoke a deadly war with Iran that will spill onto our soil, starting with a dirty-bomb attack at the 2008 Oscars. This campaign revolves around the release of rock band Nine Inch Nails’ latest concept album, Year Zero. And currently, the campaign has millions of fans wrapped up in solving puzzles, making phone calls, and even searching the bathroom stalls of venues NIN have recently played looking for flash drives with leaked songs from the album.

“Our games would die without a community, in every single case,” says Lee. “We don’t build a single-player game, and the reason is part of the allure of these games is the experience of finding a community. As passionate as you are about a particular experience, the puzzles are too hard for a single person to solve. Part of the fun is finding a larger community where there might be an expert on 16th-century lute tablature who can provide that skill set to the community.”

As part of a marketing campaign for Activision’s “Gun” video game, 42 Entertainment developed a small side game as part of its larger narrative. A Web site instructed players to meet in graveyards around their communities to play poker with tombstones. “We had a very simple formula to turn any tombstone you saw into a playing card. The size of the tombstone determined the color. . . . The last year of the death date was the suit. Now, all of a sudden players could go to any cemetery in the world and play Texas Hold ’Em in the cemetery. We were getting pictures back from players all over the world playing poker in these cemeteries, and they were cleaning the tombstones as they go, making the entire space more pleasant for those around them.”

Lee says viral marketing based on ARGs may eventually become the standard rather than the exception in advertising. “The age of ‘push information’ is dying. People have so many other options, so many available technologies to allow them to put on their blinders and miss all of it. So instead, what has to replace that is its opposite: pull entertainment. People are seeking out this marketing because it has value to them.”

ARGs may very well be the future of advertising, but at the same time, their popularity and ability to hold consumers in their sway may eventually lead to ARGs simply becoming part of the experience of the product while it is on store shelves, not just as hype builders before a product’s release.

“We will see a lot of experimentation in that realm very soon,” says Lee. “These games thrive in the real world. So if a game were to rely on an album that is currently available, if it encourages you to hold up the album insert to a flame, or bend it to a certain way, or hold it up to the computer screen, I mean, how much cooler is that game?”

dking@metroland.net


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