Product-Placement-Free 'Lost' TV Show Gets Viral Integration Partners

ABC Prepares Online Campaigns With Four Marketers

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LOS ANGELES -- It could be the best stealth branding campaign ever or the worst shill imaginable, with the decision ultimately being made by legions of die-hard fans of the hit TV show "Lost."
This image appears deep within letyourcompassguideyou.com. Fans of the mysterious show get additional content and features that enhance the story line.
Click to see larger image.




In its nearly two seasons on the air, "Lost" has avoided product placements. But four marketers -- Verizon Wireless, Monster.com, Chrysler Group's Jeep and Coca-Cola's Sprite -- have linked with ABC and the Emmy-winning drama's producers to create viral campaigns that are as enigmatic as the show.

At the heart of the project are numerous Web sites packed with videos, fake ads and arcane bits of information that add new layers to "Lost's" already complicated mythology.

Digging deep for messages

You have to dig deep to find any brand messages, and even those are intertwined with clues and back stories from the show about plane crash victims on an uncharted island.

ABC and the show's creators, aiming to keep rabid fans engaged through the summer, created the program, dubbed "The Lost Experience," as a kind of parallel universe filled with original content. It kicked off earlier this month as a countdown to the end of the show's second season tonight.

In keeping with the secretive tone of the show, neither ABC executives nor the marketers would reveal too many details, if any, of what the brands have planned as part of their involvement.

"It's a hybrid between content and marketing," Mike Benson, ABC Entertainment's senior VP-marketing, said of "The Lost Experience." "It's a real story that started organically."

Surprise for fans

The four marketers are financing the viral campaign, though Mr. Benson wouldn't give figures. There's a specific reason for each advertiser to be involved, but again, Mr. Benson didn't want to give up details for fear of spoiling the surprise for fans who hang on and follow every clue.

One connection that emerged during last week's episode: the character Michael looked at a compass during a jungle search for his son. Jeep is launching a model called the Compass and created a site, letyourcompassguideyou.com, which contains appropriately mysterious "Lost"-themed material.

"The Lost Experience" will continue to unfold across media platforms, with podcasting expected to join a lineup that already includes TV, print and online. Separately, marketers will add their own media and promote through media such as retail stores, though it will be more subtle than a typical splashy movie campaign.
This image appears deep within letyourcompassguideyou.com. Fans of the mysterious show get additional content and features that enhance the story line.
Click to see larger image.




ABC executives said they needed to reach out to fans and potential viewers with something eye-catching and unique because of the intense competition for consumers' attention. They had to be mindful of the form it would take.

Aware of the 'Lost' brand

"We're working very hard not to destroy the relationship the audience has with the TV show," Mr. Benson said. "We're very aware of the 'Lost' brand, but we can't go about business in the same way as we have before."

No one involved wanted traditional sponsorships -- "Lost" does not feature traditional product placements -- so network executives and the show's producers came up with ideas of ways to give fans new material through the months when the show's in reruns.

They started with a slickly produced phony ad for the fictitious Hanso Foundation, which is part of a mystery the characters are trying to unlock. Web sites are embedded in the ad -- the most recent carried a tiny "paid for by Jeep" tagline on-screen -- sending fans to marketer-backed sites.

Coca-Cola Co., relaunching its flagging Sprite brand, linked its new Web site called sublymonal.com with "The Lost Experience." The site's home page prominently displays the word "obey" -- as in "Obey your thirst." Further exploration turns up codes that fans can use on related Web sites to unlock more "Lost"-themed content.

Sprite's ad agency, Crispin Porter & Bogusky, Miami, which last year took over the business from Ogilvy & Mather, New York, has a number of successful viral campaigns under its belt, including the "Subservient Chicken" for Burger King. The agency is revisiting Sprite's "lymon" roots in a new ad campaign launching in theaters, in print and outdoors.

Linked with finale

Verizon Wireless and Monster.com are linked with tonight's two-hour season finale, though executives wouldn't give details.

Since there are no brands on the show itself -- everything, including food and clothes, is generic -- the network has tagged the advertisers' involvement with tiny on-screen icons. They're visible only with a sharp eye or a slow-motion DVR setting.

"Lost," which has averaged about 15 million viewers a week in its first two seasons, has spawned a number of imitators, with networks recently announcing supernatural-themed and serialized shows for their upcoming fall schedules. "Lost" will return with new episodes in September.
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