Mr. Love, a 26-year-old from Albuquerque, N.M., was caught up in the mystery with thousands of others across the world, spending between 15 minutes and four hours every day trying to solve it. But what he and his fellow detectives didn't realize was they were really involved in an intricate commercial, part of General Motors Corp.'s "Live Green, Go Yellow" ethanol-ad blitz.
"Who knew a four-month commercial could be so fun?" Mr. Love told Advertising Age in an e-mail. For GM, the feeling is mutual. The automaker's first trip into the world of alternate-reality gaming nabbed the company a small but highly engaged audience for what ordinarily might have been a mundane message: the benefits of ethanol. More than 1,000 players came along for the four-month romp through "a modern-day mystery," said GM's Bob Kraut, director-brand marketing and advertising operations.
The mystery-solving gambit, dubbed "Who is Benjamin Stove?" kept the auto giant's role as backer concealed until late in the process. The goal: Create prelaunch buzz for the ethanol-ad blitz.
Alternate-reality games, or ARGs, are catching on with marketers. ARGs ask players to solve mysteries by seeking out clues online and, increasingly, offline as well. Microsoft used an ARG in 2004 to market Halo 2, Audi launched its "Art of the Heist" game last year, and ABC is using an ARG to keep "Lost" viewers intrigued throughout the summer.
1.8 million page views
GM's effort attracted 1.8 million page views through mid-April, with 383,829 consumers spending an average of nearly 17 minutes per visit, according to Stefan Kogler, senior VP-creative director of new media at Campbell-Ewald, which designed the game. (To put that into perspective, a niche cable network such as the Travel Channel might snag about 400,000 prime-time viewers on an average night.) GMD Studios -- the Winter Park, Fla., outfit that created Audi's "Art of the Heist" game -- executed the GM game.
It launched in early January at whoisbenjaminstove.com. There, fictional 29-year-old Tampa, Fla., resident and Newton, Iowa, native Tucker Darby asked for help unraveling the mystery of an antique painting of crop circles he bought in the sale of the Stove family's farm estate in Newton. Benjamin Stove, the farm's last owner, had disappeared without a trace. (Tucker Darby's online picture is actually the ad agency's Brad Fairhurst; other Campbell-Ewald execs appear as well: Christine Wilson posed as Sarah Randall, cynical publisher of debunkette.com, a website on the paranormal and Chris Zientek was Benjamin Stove, who spent his life trying to solve the crop-circles mystery.)
The story unfolded over 12 weeks, with twists and turns including alien appearances and conspiracy theories. One discovery: The crop-circle painting and other clues nearly matched ethanol's molecular makeup.
Gamers called officials in Newton to try to track down both Tucker Darby and Benjamin Stove. They created their own set of rules and established a complaints department. A university newspaper in Finland actually sought to interview Mr. Darby, Mr. Kogler said.
Players also tracked clues leading to real-world destinations, such as libraries in eight cities, where the game's puppet masters had left hints in rare books from the 1950s. A man in a black trench coat offered additional information at a bar in Manhattan.
Open letter from Stove
In late April, USAToday.com carried an open letter from Mr. Stove, citing GM for leading the charge against the fossil-fuel crisis with its "Live Green, Go Yellow" campaign and flexible-fuel engines.
Mr. Love, who owns a Mazda Protégé and diesel Dodge Ram 3500, said he "didn't really have any opinion at all about GM before" but now has a favorable, if not yet strong, impression of the carmaker. "It's nice to know that a large corporation will take the time and spend the money to spread awareness of a noble cause."