It was a case of grand theft auto. An A3 was

It was a case of grand theft auto. An A3 was stolen out of a dealership. But it was no ordinary Audi. Its audio system held the key to decoding encrypted messages about an art heist. An expert art retriever, her boyfriend and a video game designer were hired to locate the car. However, one of them may have been behind the theft in the first place.

The plot has all the makings of Hollywood’s next action thriller. In fact, it was the intricate storyline of Audi’s recent “Art of the Heist” campaign promoting the new car model. Created by McKinney + Silver, the effort challenged consumers to keep up with the rapidly changing plot through Web sites, blogs and chat rooms, live events and some TV and print ads.

“Art of the Heist” is an example of marketers’ ever-growing quest to connect consumers with their brands in the age of TiVo. Instead of hooking them for 60 seconds, marketers are attempting to hold their attention for weeks, using the Internet, staged events and fictional characters to engage consumer interest and gently brand along the way. Using increasingly complex plotlines, these campaigns often call for the consumer to become not only involved, but immersed, in the effort. But in an attempt to re-engage consumers, marketers may be estranging them.

Last year, Sharp introduced its Aquos liquid crystal television set with an “alternate reality game” campaign—or ARG, as some of these plot-heavy efforts have been termed—centered around “The Legend of the Sacred Urns”; but this June, it switched to a more tried-and-true marketing effort—TV and print without all the consumer-play extras.

“You run the risk of alienating consumers with a more creative campaign. We found that elements have to be easy to understand,” says Bob Scaglione, marketing svp for Sharp. “We think the complexity of the creative last time may have overpowered the brand message. There’s a certain consumer base that really got it—a certain portion of the demographic really loved that. But along the way, I think we confused a lot of people.”

The “Legend of the Sacred Urns” campaign was centered around a consumer contest. To win a Sharp home entertainment set, consumers were invited to solve a mystery—where an eccentric millionaire had hidden an urn with prizes hidden inside. The game involved traditional print and TV spots that directed consumers to, where they could learn about the “Legend of the Sacred Urns.” The TV spots depicted a crucial moment of the plot, when a car drives into a pool, from the perspective of several characters from the game. The game rolled out over four months, as interactive Web sites and TV spots kept the plot developing, ending with Ken Floss of Ohio eventually solving the puzzle and winning the prize.

Although Scaglione says Sharp was pleased with the results of the effort—the Web site received more than one million visitors during the four-month campaign—it actually missed part of the target. Scaglione says Sharp has identified four main targets for the Aquos: aesthetes, sports enthusiasts, entertainment junkies and techno geeks. With the ARG campaign, he says, “We really focused on the techno-geek portion and alienated the other three to some extent. This time, each of the elements we selected [for the campaign] speak to a certain group. It’s a tough one: You want to be targeted, but you want to speak to all your demographics.”

ARGs began, appropriately enough, as a way to target gamers, who are notoriously averse to traditional ads. Wieden + Kennedy in New York and Chelsea Pictures’ Haxan team (The Blair Witch Project) developed a campaign for Sega in 2004 that directly interacted with gamers (by sending them e-mails) and told the story of a renegade hacker who was protesting an upcoming Sega release. A similar campaign for the Halo 2 game, called “I Love Bees,” was also a smash hit among gamers.

Agencies and clients applying this tactic to higher ticket items such as TVs and luxury cars admit they’re delving into uncharted territory. “The whole thing was a risk to begin with,” says Stephen Berkov, Audi director of marketing. “But if we don’t risk it, we’re not going to learn whether this was effective or not.”

The Audi game was launched in March, three months before the car’s release, and existed purely online in order to gain a sense of authenticity among hardcore gamers, according to Berkov. The next step was to reach a broader audience, specifically affluent 25- to 34-year-olds, with a traditional print and TV campaign. Ads showed the A3 but added a stamp directing consumers to, to lead them to the in-progress game. Audi created a microsite for people new to the game that summarized the plot. “It’s a buffer between the ARG world and the more traditional online world,” Berkov says. “You can choose—do you want to go through the door or not?”

Did it work? To Berkov, the answer is yes. He points out there were 800,000 hits to the Audi site during this time last year; as the game concluded last month, there were 1.4 million. Also helpful are consumer comments gathered through its heavy online presence. “We’re getting qualitative info about what people thought of the car through the Web site and game,” he says. “It’s the ultimate focus group.” Audi found that 33 percent of visitors to the site went to pages such as the lease calculator or dealer locator pages. They’ve sold 763 cars since the launch in May, when their goal was 500.

“These are hard measurements for us [indicating] people are really interested in shopping the car,” says McKinney account director Lee Newman. “It’s a very significant increase from what we’ve seen in previous campaigns. If you deeply engage the consumer, it’s going to translate into people shopping the product.”

The key lies in allowing consumers to be involved as much or as little as they want to be. Campfire, a division of Chelsea Pictures that includes Haxan, worked on Audi’s “Art of the Heist” as well as campaigns for Sega and Sharp Aquos. They have created a system involving three levels of consumer involvement: a small but intense group of hardcore gamers; a second level that will keep track of the story and periodically check Web sites; and a less-involved group that will visit the site once after hearing about the game through press and get a general association of the game with Audi.

Less-involved consumers could check out summaries of the game, while more-involved gamers have the opportunity to find hidden puzzles embedded deep within the Web site—the Audi campaign, for example, had one that gamers spent weeks on and never fully solved.

In addition to the alternative reality campaign, another popular interactive technique is the short film Web series. Of course, the best-known of these is BMW films, but Lincoln Mercury’s “Meet the Lucky Ones” campaign for its Mariner and Target’s “Odds Against 7even” campaign by Peterson Milla Hooks in Minneapolis are two recent examples.

“Meet the Lucky Ones,” created by Young & Rubicam in Detroit and launched last November, hoped to garner consumer interest by focusing on indie credibility: a series of five short films depict the life, love and heartbreak of 10 characters with interlacing lives. Directed by Sundance winner Derek Cianfrance, with music by Stephin Merritt of the Magnetic Fields, the films’ focus on the product is minor: a character’s family gives her the car as a graduation present. “We don’t want to be in someone’s face,” says Linda Perry-Lube, CRM and e-business manager, Lincoln Mercury. “We realized the value of a good story.”

The series rolled out one week at a time. A Web surf reveals mixed feelings about the campaign. One blogger wrote: “It seems like someone at Mercury’s ad agency wanted to be an independent filmmaker when they grew up, but ended up getting a marketing major instead to pay back the student loans.”

Lincoln Mercury was pleased to find 1.9 million visitors to the site in eight weeks, when they normally get 200,000 viewers a month.

Aside from bloggers, though, it’s difficult to say how much this campaign engaged consumers. Douglas Rushkoff, author of the upcoming book Get Back in the Box: Innovation From the Inside Out, says that clients and advertisers have half the equation right. “They need to understand that, yes, there’s a tremendous need for people to engage socially. [But] they have to figure out if and how the product they’re making helps people do that.”

Just creating good media outlets isn’t enough, since people pay for their media now and brands can’t compete, Rushkoff says. “If I want good media, I’ll buy it from HBO,” he says. “They’re giving me better stuff for the water cooler than Target or Lincoln are.”

Still, it’s arguable that these campaigns do have a solid place in companies’ media plans, as long as they work in conjunction with other advertising. “What was certainly surprising to us was the importance and impact of good, old-fashioned traditional media in helping make [‘Art of the Heist’] explode,” says Lee Newman, Audi account director at McKinney + Silver. In the middle of May, it launched TV, print and outdoor, as well as a lot of online plot development. “It was like a chemistry experiment,” Newman says. “Adding a little bit of this, a little of that—you really sort of get an explosion.”

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