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Tall Tales

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Before he died under mysterious circumstances in a crumbling chateau in France last year, anthropologist Dagobert Steinitz, according to legend, hid three urns somewhere around the world, and left a set of cryptic clues as to their whereabouts. When an expert puzzler, Peter Lindman, found one of the urns—which contained $1 million—earlier this year, the hunt for the other two intensified. This Friday, three TV commercials will air that show three different perspectives on a critical moment in the developing search—a car crashing into a swimming pool—as three puzzlers pull ruses on one another other while competing to find the missing treasure.

This feature-film-worthy, action-filled plot anchors a new global ad campaign by Wieden + Kennedy, New York, for Sharp's new liquid-crystal Aquos TV. The campaign, comprising 10 Web sites, print ads and TV spots directed by Errol Morris, will be translated into seven languages. And it opens a new chapter in the nascent advertising genre of interactive fiction.

As viewership fragments and DVRs dilute the impact of the 30-second spot, interactive-fiction campaigns aim to actively connect with viewers, drawing them in and holding on to them for as long as the story allows. In the Sharp campaign, for example, viewers can follow the search on the Web and even find the missing urns themselves. Other recent examples in the genre include Wieden's Sega ESPN NFL Football videogame campaign, in which a fictional game tester, Beta-7, contacted other users, claiming that the game made him black out and tackle people; a Mini campaign by Crispin Porter + Bogusky in Miami with Web sites that documented a scientist who created robots from Mini parts; and a blog and answering-machine message created by Fallon in Minneapolis featuring the musings of the 90-foot woman from its Lee Jeans ads.

The complex narratives are designed to make consumers willing participants of marketing rather than passive observers. The campaigns "are not intrusive," says Brian Clark, president of new-media production firm GMD Studios in Orlando, Fla., which helped develop the Internet technology and Web sites for the Sharp project and "Beta-7." "It's there only if it manages to succeed and is interesting and captures attention. If it fails in that mission, it doesn't bother you at all as a consumer because you don't see it."

When such campaigns do gain traction, they can be huge. Take the progenitor of the genre—the campaign for the 1999 indie film The Blair Witch Project. Created by directing team Haxan, the film featured a handful of teens lost in the woods, haunted by a spectral witch. Months before its release, the movie was a mere blip on the radar, but then a Web site appeared, documenting the teens' disappearance, and a fake documentary about the mystery aired on the Sci-Fi Channel. People who stumbled upon the site or watched the program began to debate whether the Blair Witch was real or not. The marketing involved consumers in a way few campaigns had before—letting consumers largely create the buzz themselves. The movie went on to gross $250 million worldwide.

"The big misconception about Blair Witch was that we told everyone it was real," says Mike Monello, a partner at Haxan, which is represented commercially by Chelsea Pictures in New York. (Haxan also helped create "Beta-7" and the Sharp campaign.) "We never told anyone it was real, but the Web site never said it wasn't real. Once people found the site and surfed it, they would send the link to friends, saying it was completely true. People will do that."

Haxan and GMD next applied their Blair Witch model to a TV show, FreakyLinks, which ran for one season, 2000-01, on Fox. The show featured a Webmaster, Derek Barnes, who would post accounts of paranormal activity on his Web site. Haxan and GMD developed an actual site months before the program went on the air. Visitors to the site could e-mail and interact with the fictitious character, and many did. When the show rolled out, people who had posted comments on the site saw their names on bulletin boards on the show. Although some were angry at being duped, many others were charmed to be part of the process.

The elaborate planning and commitment needed to develop and maintain story lines—Web sites must often be updated daily or weekly for months—can make such projects a difficult sell to clients. Wieden was able to do so for the "Beta-7" project by convincing the company that it would attract the famously fickle young males.

"You have to start to expand your mind and be open to new ideas," says Steve Raab, svp of marketing for ESPN Videogames, a division of Sega. "If you have a passionate fan base, it wants as much content relevant to the brand as possible, so [an interactive-fiction campaign] becomes a great way to engage fans in ways more traditional means can't."

For "Beta-7," Wieden creatives had the game-tester character crusade against the game's introduction, based on his violent response to playing it. He chronicled his battle on Web sites, sending actual e-mails and direct mail to gamers. Wieden even added a fake disclaimer to the TV commercials, emphasizing that playing the game does not cause "violent or erratic behavior." The agency cast the character and made him available to chat with gamers online and to post weekly entries on a blog for months.

"We wanted the story to come out over time and make it as realistic as possible," says Wieden art director Robert Rasmussen. "We could change it depending on people's reaction to it."

The team, which also included creative directors Ty Montague and Todd Waterbury, associate creative directors Kevin Proudfoot and Paul Renner, and copywriter Bobby Hershfield, went to great lengths to get the feel of authenticity. When they wanted Beta-7 to pass out fliers in San Francisco, they had a Kinko's clerk make them, rather than doing them in-house. When they placed ads in classified sections of alternative newspapers, they had the newspapers create them.

The attention to detail was not about actively tricking people, Rasmussen says, but about tapping into the willful disbelief of an audience raised on the pseudo-reality of professional wrestling and The X-Files. "It's brand theater, to keep them engaged," Rasmussen says. "They like to not believe, dispute things and say, 'That's not true.' Part of the joy of it is not knowing and just wondering."

Creating that joy took plenty of hours. "It was more work than any project I'd done before," Rasmussen says. The team would meet every morning and check the sites every night. "It was eight hours a day for four months while we were doing a million other jobs at the same time. You never knew if things were going to work. We were taking a lot of chances."

Was it worth it? Even Raab admits it is hard to gauge the effectiveness of such a campaign. "I think it's really tough to tie it back to the ultimate objective, which is sales and getting people to sample the games," he says. "Other measurements, however—what kind of traffic Web sites are getting, how much time people are spending with this—those are very successful." (The average person who checked out "Beta-7" during its first month or two spent more than 10 hours on the site, he adds.)

The campaign also struck a chord in the ad industry: It scored a Grand Clio, a gold Pencil at The One Show Interactive and a "Big Idea Chair" at the Andy Awards this year.

CP+B took a similar tack this year to target Mini enthusiasts. Its "Men of Metal" campaign centered on a fictional U.K. scientist, Colin Mayhew, and his quest to build robots out of BMW Mini parts.

The project began as an idea for a TV campaign, with the robot symbolizing that the car is "small in stature but big on the inside," according to art director Dave Swartz. The agency also considered executing the Mini-robot idea as a graphic novel. "We presented the [robot] idea to Mini in a raw state, a picture of this robot made of a Mini against a black background typical of the Mini look," Swartz says. "It didn't get a go-ahead, but they thought it was cool. It wasn't dead, but it wasn't really alive. That's when we decided to give it more legs."

The notion that someone actually could build a robot out of Mini parts sparked the idea to create interactive theater. "It was a believable scenario," says Andrew Keller, CP+B creative director. "We had a great story, so we thought, let's start writing the story, then we're always trying to add edges and depth to anything we do." The project began in earnest in July 2003, and the Web sites debuted in March. The Internet component was essential, Keller says, because "we wanted to show the robot in action. We realized we should really be creating a Web site to show that."

"The Mini mind-set is about discovery. They love to explore a brand rather than be hit over the head with it," says Kerri Martin, Mini's marketing communications manager. "So this is a great way to elicit exploration."

To date, the Web sites have garnered almost 1 million unique visits and more than 12.5 million hits.

In addition to Mayhew's personal site, the online offerings included a site dedicated to his robots and a site of a fake publishing company that hawked a fictional book, Men of Metal: Eyewitness Accounts of Humanoid Robots. An excerpt from the book, by one Rowland Samuel, who has his own site, was inserted into magazines. People could e-mail Mayhew and Samuel, and they did. Queries came from all over the globe—with some people asking if they could visit the scientist, and others wondering if the story line was real. Even the CIA visited the sites, according to Keller.

The "Men of Metal" campaign differed from "Beta-7" in one key aspect: the reveal. Rather than maintain the mystery surrounding Colin Mayhew and the robots, CP+B created an outdoor campaign explicitly linking the Mini robots to Mini marketing. Signs went up this summer, effectively admitting the hoax, although the Web sites will stay up indefinitely. Billboards showed the robot alongside a Mini, and a giant Mini robot went up in New York in August. The robots are also on Mini's Web site.

At first, not everyone thought the advertising component was needed. "I had concerns that doing advertising would potentially stop the buzz," Keller says. "But the interesting thing about it is, when we went ahead and did those pieces, in some ways it allowed people to complete the cycle and added to the enjoyment of the overall piece."

For a campaign aimed at a larger audience, the central question is how to link it with a brand—how to make sure it effectively advertises the brand it represents. "Men of Metal" did that through the outdoor campaign. For the Sharp hidden-treasure project, consumers interested in exploring the Web sites must begin at www.moretosee.com, which shows the Aquos television and lists its product attributes. And traditional TV spots are crucial in driving people to the site.

"TV commercials are not a great medium for doing serious education because they're evaporative," says Wieden co-creative director Ty Montague. "The Web is a much better place to educate people about the product benefits of a liquid-crystal display. The aim of the campaign is to hook people in the medium of TV and get them to the Web to learn the deeper story, so they can walk away better educated. ... The strategy behind getting people to the Web led to the decision to create a persistent Web narrative, to let the story unfold there and get people to continue to come back."

So, can an interactive- fiction campaign work for a broad audience? That remains to be seen. But by utilizing more than one medium to draw people in, it is one answer to the riddle of attracting consumers to advertising as the 30-second commercial becomes increasingly avoidable.

"Right now, the online portion [of advertising] is kind of an afterthought—the way agencies are set up to think about broadcast and print," says Haxan's Monello. "I think to really harness the power of what you can do with it, you have to start from the narrative, and let the broadcast, print and everything else come from the narrative, rather than the other way around. That's going to be the 'wow' moment."