Art & Commerce: Stranger Than Fiction

Following in the footsteps of Web celeb Bree from lonelygirl15, London “local” Kate is the star of the online serialized short, Kate Modern. Five times each week, the plot of Kate Modern unravels in super-short sound bites, perfect for the show’s target audience of Gen Ys who seek CliffsNotes content and entertainment lite.

But unlike lonelygirl15, which led viewers to believe that Bree was, in fact, a 15-year-old girl revealing her innermost thoughts on YouTube, Kate Modern was never positioned as “real.” However, while Kate may be a character, the series interjects non-fiction throughout its narrative—it includes an actual up-and-coming band in its plotline, posts characters’ profiles on social networking site Bebo, and hosts live events that correspond with the show. As such, audiences are left to guess what’s real and what’s not.

Kate Modern is just one example of how the line separating fiction from fact has become hazy, especially among the lives of the under-35 set, a majority of whom fall within Generation Y. In addition to reality-laced serialized shorts, video games, alternative reality games, virtual worlds and reality shows have also masterfully mixed real with imaginary and fueled the development of this trend. Furthermore, online identities have changed young people’s perspectives on what defines reality. Digital footprints—ranging from Google links and Facebook friends to Flickr photos and World of Warcraft scores— continue to drive real-world cool, and who you are online increasingly determines who you are in life. In essence, cyber status has become an integral part of young people’s personalities.

Therefore, it’s not surprising that Gen Y has established a more fluid relationship between fiction and fact; after all, if virtual identities seamlessly blend with everyday existences, why can’t make-believe characters casually mix with actual events? For this generation, virtual easily integrates with real, making reality an increasingly relative concept.

Until recently, the convergence of fiction and fact has been largely driven by exporting real people, places and products into online environments, virtual worlds and television screens. We’ve placed brands in sitcoms, billboards in video games, profiles on MySpace, retailers in Second Life, plush pets in Webkinz and Miis in Wiis.

Lately, however, we are not only exporting reality; we are importing fiction. This summer, Krusty O’s cereal, Buzz Cola and Squishee slushies, stocked the shelves of 7-Eleven “Kwik-E-Marts;” characters from The Simpsons modeled fashions that graced the pages of Harper’s Bazaar; and JetBlue’s blog was taken over by Homer’s boss, Mr. Burns. By making its previously animated products available for sale and integrating its characters into mainstream media, The Simpsons Movie launched a trend of reverse product placement. In a more recent instance of this trend, CBS ran a full-page advertisement for Lucia Duque—the family-owned rum company from its new series Cane—in the September issue of Rolling Stone magazine. The ad was complemented with a “taste strip” that allowed readers to sample the fictitious beverage. And like Kate Modern’s serial shorts that blend imaginary and real, Candace Bushnell’s much anticipated TV series on NBC, Lipstick Jungle, will launch Bonfire magazine, an online version of the in-show magazine, when the show airs in January 2008. Bonfire will include a mix of real articles and fashion advice alongside “Bonfire Buzz”—gossip about the fictional plots and people from the show.

It’s easy to envision how, in the not-so-distant-future, television shows, video games, virtual worlds and online environments could become prime testing grounds and launching pads for fashion labels, retail spaces, cosmetic lines, packaged goods, sports equipment, interior designs and restaurant chains. Companies are likely to partner with content creators to seed highly conceptual products and brands in soon-to-be-released shows, movies, games, songs and communities. In other words, rather than planting existing items in prime-time hits, marketers may leverage TV pilots to “launch” experimental brands: If the show gains momentum, the brand is likely to gather exposure, and products relating to the brand could potentially be spun off into the real world.

Not only are fictitious brands, products and plots garnering real-world presence, but virtual goods are also being freed from their two-dimensional environments. Through rapid prototyping, consumers are now able to create three-dimensional color models of their virtual creations, such as their favorite gnome from World of Warcraft or fuzzy friend from Neopets, and import these objects into the real world. Although rapid prototyping is far from common at this point in time, it is possible to imagine the emergence—at least conceptually—of “portals” that connect the real world to the virtual world and allow consumers to transport existing products into online environments, customize these products to their liking, and export their new and improved creations back into the real world. Or just sell them for a nice profit on eBay.

The exchange between fiction and fact has truly become a two-way street. Although marketers and consumers have placed real content into virtual environments for decades, it’s only now that they have started to insert fictional characters, plots, products and brands into the everyday. Reverse product placement and rapid prototyping have, in essence, freed fiction from the 2-D screen, transported it into the 3-D world, and created the ultimate virtual reality mash-up. Pop culture has become part fiction. Marketers have become reality ghostwriters. And reality has become stranger than fiction. The result is that we all are all left to guess what’s real and what’s not.