Marketers tapping into the magic of an alternate reality

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Crop circles. Ringing payphones with cryptic messages. Poker tournaments held in cemeteries. Welcome to alternate-reality marketing. Marketers from Audi, Microsoft and Coke, to Warner Brothers and ABC have all marshaled their marketing forces to create fabricated narratives that blur the lines between real and imagined worlds.

They all fall into the fast-developing category of alternate-reality games (now known as ARGs), a cross-media format that involves a combination of Web sites, fictional characters and a puzzle that often links consumers to live, real-world elements (staged events, phone calls, classified ads) and to each other in pursuit of an elusive goal.

You might be familiar with some examples of the genre: Wieden & Kennedy's much-awarded Beta 7 project for Sega; the Audi Art of the Heist campaign from McKinney; and, the ARG campaign in support of Stephen Spielberg's 2001 film "AI" called The Beast.

The architects of that last project went on to form their own company, 42 Entertainment, and spearhead another of the best known ARGs, I Love Bees, which helped launch the monster Xbox title Halo 2. That campaign involved an elaborate radio drama that was broadcast over thousands of payphones, the Web site of a fictional retired beekeeper hacked by an unknown entity and ... well, you get the picture.

Actually, you probably don't, because these games are often incredibly complicated and time-consuming for participants. But if you think the only people with the inclination to play would be Dungeons and Dragons nerds long on time and short on female companionship, think again.

Jordan Weisman, chief creative officer of 42 Entertainment, estimates that the "AI" game directly generated 30 million impressions.

And in addition to 42's other ARG projects, the company has undertaken a more mass-appeal campaign for MSN Search and is currently working on a project for a large package-goods company.

Mike Benson, senior-VP marketing for ABC Entertainment, spearheads an ongoing campaign with ARG elements including multiple Web sites (like and puzzles for hit serial drama "Lost." The show, says Benson, added 17 million 18-49-year-old viewers from last year to this year. Of course, an Emmy win and a quality show don't hurt, but Benson is quick to acknowledge the power of the unusual Web campaign.

But there's lots beyond the hard measurement stats that make ARGs interesting. Talking to Weisman about the concepts behind his company's ARG work-things like the "hive mind," harnessing the collected skills of communications-obsessed young people; and creating narrative structures organic to the Web-you start to see how much insight is likely to continue to spill out of the game industry in coming years.

Benson talks about the "Lost" campaign as off-network initiative to carry buzz over the summer and to snag "Lost" converts. "We wanted to try to create an experience that was so good that whether you knew the show or not it was something that you wanted to share in."

Those ARG aspects-the engagement of willing participants and smaller groups passing along content to much larger groups-also worked for Audi, says McKinney Creative Director Jonathan Cude. "Marketers are realizing," he says, "that in this landscape you are not competing against other luxury auto manufacturers. You are competing against pop culture for people's mind space."

Teressa Iezzi is the editor of Creativity and

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