It was one of the worst movies of 2008, with camera work so shaky the audience literally got sick. Theaters emptied and some viewers asked for their money back. Yet, Cloverfield paid for itself within the first week of opening, and to date has grossed over 200 million dollars.
What kept this movie from going broke, and still keeps it alive today? Great viral marketing, including an alternative reality game. For those unfamiliar, an Alternative Reality Game, also known as an ARG, is a storyline woven into a fabric of multiple media, usually including the internet. Clues are hidden on web sites, telephone answering machines, and players can even be included in real life events as part of the game.
While purists shun Cloverfield as not a true ARG, the feature used some essential elements that work with the genre. Characters from the movie were established as if they were real, with blogs giving details and dimension to their lives. Characters outside of the movie were introduced, creating a back story which gave viewers an inside advantage as to what was really going on in the chaotic story. Viewers were entertained with publicity stunts for Cloverfield related products. There were planted video news reports on the web, that looked so realistic, it would have made Orson Wells bow to their mastery.
The results? The movie Cloverfield became an essential piece in a much larger puzzle. Players in the ARG were no longer seeing a movie, they were analyzing an essential clue. Those who couldn’t make it through the movie without getting sick to their stomach (such as myself), anxiously awaited the release of the DVD. In the midst of a slump in motion picture DVD sales, Cloverfield grossed 30 million dollars from DVD sales to fans desperate for clues they missed in the theater. As a bonus, additional clues were included on the DVD and even the packaging itself.
Clearly an ARG can be a dream come true, and it’s aided artists such as Trent Reznor, who was instrumental in creating a Nine Inch Nails ARG that advanced the trend, affectionately termed “The Beast”. ARG’s are becoming an established part of cult entertainment for such films as Batman Returns and Watchmen. However, ARG’s can be a nightmare for marketing.
In a realm where clients scream for “Viral” campaigns, barely knowing what the word means, or if it even has any merit, one has to question how appropriate is an ARG as a marketing tool for other things in life. While there is a lot to be gained from the concept, if used in the right way, and for the right reason, alternative reality games have several drawbacks when used to market products.
1. Their best use is for entertainment. The most notable ARGs come from entertainment based products and are now often used for television programs, books, movies and music. Because an ARG weaves puzzles and stories around a particular subject, (or subjects), it’s a fantastic way to tie in multiple genres such as music, books and television, since the consumer is obviously wanting to be entertained. It’s a subliminal opt-in process. “A Christmas Story” easily illustrates the disappointment a customer might feel being duped by marketing in the “Drink Your Ovaltine” scene. Which leads us into issue two.
2. People as a whole don’t want to be sold on something, especially something that wastes their time. People who engage in ARGs are on the whole pretty intelligent. Often, they’ve found clues on their own, and the games often rely on support from players working together to crack codes and investigate whatever mystery the story is based on. There’s a difference between being clever and tricking people, and if a marketer doesn’t understand that, it can lead to a backlash. It’s not uncommon for players to actually turn on a game that treats those involved as marks in a great con-game. That translates to bad public relations for your company and your product.
3. Wake up and smell the obscurity. ARGs are great for attracting a niche market, but you can’t overlook traditional methods for promoting the product while you carry out your more creative marketing plans. Many alternative reality games are going on as you read this. Does your son, daughter, wife, neighbor, your friends or co-workers know what those games are? Such obscure promotional techniques could be as bad as advertising on telegraph. To attract interest in Cloverfield, (outside of the ARG community who were already finding the fake news reports on YouTube), the marketers kicked off the premiere of their trailer on the opening night of Transformers. The trailer was obviously for a new movie, and it was clear that it was traditional marketing. However, it also caused thousands of people to go home that night and search the internet for clues such as Cloverfield, and “1-18-08″, getting hooked on the game and spreading word to their friends. The marketers behind Cloverfield covered all of their bases.
4. It’s still real work, and it’s not necessarily cheap. A well planned ARG can be very time consuming. You are looking at many different mediums that will be used to carry out your storyline and different ways to involve the people interacting with that story. Play elements will involve creating puzzles, artwork, videos, multiple web sites, and in many cases a lot of personal contact with those playing the ARG. Most ARG players agree that frequent updates and personal contact from in game characters is what keeps them involved, along with a good storyline. Alternative reality games are intended to last months, sometimes years. Some games simply don’t end. That can be very taxing on a marketing and publicity team already bogged down with conventional campaigns.
5. It still doesn’t make a product credible. The worst example I can think of this is the “Who is Benjamin Stove” campaign by General Motors, used to illustrate their green energy vehicles. While the campaign generated attention and players from around the world, it still fell painfully short of it’s goal, awareness of General Motors as a “green” company with quality products. Chances are that money would have been better spent generating awareness in the mainstream press and directly to the public about their ethanol vehicles, putting more hybrids on the road, and scaling down their SUV production. It’s no wonder GM needed a bailout. An ARG would have been powerless to stop the demise of Delorian, Edsel, AMC, Pets.com, and Virgin Cola.
So how do you use an ARG to market a mundane product such as soap or luncheon meat? Chances are, you don’t. However, I do have some suggestions . . . .
Good brands reward their users. Much as Nine Inch Nails used “lost” thumb drives and coded t-shirts as clues presented to their die hard fans for the ‘Year Zero’ ARG campaign, you can use your soap, beer, or meat product’s packaging to hide clues that lead not only to puzzles, but prizes and cross-promoted products. It’s product placement in reverse. What if the radio message in “A Christmas Story” said “fifteen cents off Ovaltine if you call 1-800-codenumber now” instead of “drink more Ovaltine”. What if the nifty decoder ring also decoded secret messages on Ovaltine cans and other packaging that lead to prizes or other valuable encentives? What if that all lead back to the radio show in “A Christmas Story”.
Tricking your potential customers does not generate good buzz, but rewarding customers does. The Nine Inch Nails campaign most likely didn’t generate many new listeners, but it obviously kept the listener base strong and did create some fantastic buzz by rewarding players with a surprise private concert as part of the plot line. That’s a public relations coup for Trent to be proud of.