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Barbara Lippert's Critique: Wieden's Great Hoax

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Talk about your integrated branding and innovative use of media. "Beta-7" is an intricately layered, deliberately complicated piece of "live interactive theater" that played out in real time over the four months preceding the September launch of Sega's ESPN NFL Football game.

Confused? Join the club. Disguised as one man's anti-Sega crusade, it was in fact a marketing machine run with military precision and Swiss-like timing. The project involved three Web sites (the original, with posts from the campaign's 24-hour-a-day protagonist, and the two real fan sites that sprung up), viral videos and voicemails, big-time commercials that aired on cable networks, tiny classified ads in places like The Onion, "physical stunting," chat rooms, mail (beta copies of the game were sent to a few testers, then bogus legal letters demanded them back), massive e-mailings and flier distribution.

It added up to a campaign that's cleaned up at the award shows, winning a Grand Clio last week in the new "Content & Contact" category, a gold Pencil at The One Show Interactive and a "Big Idea chair" at the Andys.

Welcome to the new world of advertising, where the 30-second TV spot is a relatively small component of a campaign.

What made the whole Beta-7 "experience" so believable was the monomaniacal attention to detail throughout and the brilliant consistency of tone across all media. How to explain it? Think Charlie Kaufman's twists on reality in movies such as Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, with plots and meta-plots mating like cicadas and then looping around in circles.

The story appears to be a war between the happy, shiny Sega people, who want to enrich the world with their new "first-person football" feature, aka "crash-cam," on their latest ESPN football game, and a shady guy named "Beta-7," who claims Sega hired him as a game tester. Shortly thereafter, Beta-7 says in his Web journal, he started to suffer from freakish symptoms, including an uncontrollable urge to tackle people. (Video shows this happening to B-7 at the beach and the office, where he delivers mail. It's hilarious, and brings a deliciously dorky edge to a genre previously defined by Reebok's Terry Tate.)

Beta-7 rants about his lousy days as he obsessively seeks out other testers, who in turn claim medical injuries. They maintain that in releasing a game that Sega knows is dangerous, it is now involved in a serious cover-up. According to our anti-hero, the company has even gone so far as to create its own lame, fake fan Web site to refute the accusations, under the too-perfect name "GamerChuck.com." (It looks perfectly Vegas-cheesy.)

Any thinking person would have surmised that the stuff is so dead-on (and in some cases, deadly dumb) that it had to be real. A Wieden art director had to delearn everything he knew to make Web sites look sufficiently crude and fliers painstakingly Kinko's-esque, and he passed with flying colors. Some of the viral videos (done by the Blair Witch filmmakers, Chelsea Pictures directing group Haxan, in conjunction with the agency) are too funny to seem real, but the whole damn story is so smart that even some cynical hard-core gamers bought into at least part of it.

As a result, there are gamers out there who feel mightily betrayed. Others love being punked or just want to blame the whole thing on Dick Cheney. And some refuse to give up, e-mailing Web sites, months after they shut down, to find out what happened to Beta-7.

The Web sites collectively got more than 2 million hits. And Sega's sales reportedly exceeded projections by 20 percent (despite a delayed launch that followed the category behemoth, Madden 2003).

The setup is heaven for conspiracy nuts, with our Mr. Beta finding subliminal messages in the game (a bit of grass on the field spells out the word "destroy," he thinks) and going crazy as Sega hacks into his Web site, sends nasty cease-and-desist letters, shuts him down and, by the very end, sadly, ransacks his lonely single-guy apartment.

Meanwhile, a few weeks before the launch, Wieden broke a regular old TV ad showing off the crash-cam innovation, with Warren Sapp interacting delightfully with the comedian Tracy Morgan. It's a great spot. Feeding into the conspiracy, the spot even sported an assurance (when it ran on ESPN) that "excessive playing of the game would not lead to violent or erratic behavior." This just added to the level of agitation in the chat rooms, seemingly proving that Sega had something to hide.

The whole loony tale is exceedingly cohesive. Part of the magic came from the Blair Witch guys—that all started, if you recall, with amateurish video postings on the Web explaining the characters' back story and history. The videos led to the financing of the movie.

The story of Beta-7 also cries out for a movie. For now, he's on the run, worried that people see him as "some crazy loser, or even worse, part of a marketing campaign." And the subversion of the subverters continues.

Ironically, Wieden resigned the account due to conflicts. Or at least that's the official story.



Sega's espn nFl

football

Agency

wieden + kennedy,

new york

Creative directors

ty montague,

todd waterbury

Associate creative directors

kevin proudfoot,

paul renner

Art director

robert rasmussen

Copywriter

bobby hershfield

Executive producer

gary krieg

Agency producer

temma shoaf

Production company

Chelsea pictures

Executive producer

steve wax



Producer

anthony nelson

Writers

Mike monello, ed sanchez, jim gunshanon,

M.C. johnson

Directors

haxan (Mike monello &

Ed Sanchez)

Kuntz & Maguire

Internet consultant

GMD studios