The dangers with alternate reality games and transmedia storytelling in marketing

Just two weeks ago, we had a little workshop at the agency, of which transmedia storytelling was one part. Now I found this article from wired, in which the author summarizes the main points from a SXSW presentation by Andrea Phillips on the ethics of transmedia story telling.

The reason I find this particularly interesting is the fact, that in the last few years, advertising and marketing has adopted the trend of alternate reality gaming and transmedia storytelling, but many agencies don’t yet grasp the risks associated with this kind of disguise of campaigns.

Ever so often you get an idea from creative along the lines of: „we get this actor to pretend he is actually Mr. Smith, seriously involved in xyz, then we create a website for him, a fake facebook profile, (…) only to reveal that this is part of a campaign for brand X after two weeks of the actor having interacted with (=deceived) his fans, friends, followers, etc.

A typical campaign with a mystery phase. There have been some in the past, but it’s not state of the art any more, really. People want storytelling to be authentic, at the same time they want to be able to tell if it’s real:

Phillips followed this short discussion with the suggestion that people do not like to be “fooled” – they themselves want to be the ones to blur the lines between reality and fiction. The corollary is that people want to be in control of how far those lines are blurred.

So what could happen if people don’t realise it’s not real? What happens when people learn about parts of the game without realising it’s only that? Here is an example:

Phillips begins this section by introducing the case of Zona Incerta, a Brazilian ARG. Zona Incerta featured a video on YouTube in which the fictional CEO of Arkhos Biotech talks about buying the Amazon rainforests so that his company can raze a huge swath of it. Many people mistook the video as real, and word of it got around to a Brazilian senator, who then denounced Arkhos Biotechnology on the floor of the Brazilian senate. Fortunately for the makers and sponsors of Zona Incerta, the senator had a sense of humor and even suggested that Brazil honor a National ARG Day after discovering that Arkhos Biotech did not exist, and the video was part of a game.

Or consider this example:

Toyota’s “practical joke” marketing campaign for their Matrix model also backfired spectacularly after a woman sued Toyota for causing her to believe she was being stalked. In the campaign, users were able to enter information about their friends (without their knowledge or consent) and input their personal information so that they would receive phone calls, texts, and emails from “virtual lunatics.” The explanation is still posted on the marketing campaign website, and reading the text should be enough to make anyone shake their head and say, “that’s a bad, bad idea.”

This case can still be found here.
The case of Dell even shows, how such „games“ can results in dangerous actions. Imagine, this situation had escalated a little more:

The case of a Dell marketing stunt ended less happily. Earlier this year, two Dell employees were arrested when one of them donned a mask and appeared on the sales floor at a Dell campus in Round Rock, Texas, waving a metal object and directing everyone to the lobby. The ill-conceived stunt was meant to move everyone to the lobby for a new product announcement but became much more complicated when the police were called.

Given these incidents (and a little bit of common sense), one shouldn’t be surprised, that authenticity and reality should be well separated:

Phillips asserted that perhaps the desire for authenticity and truth in stories has been mistaken for a desire for “reality.” We want to tell stories that are true, she stated. A story can be true, can be authentic, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be “real.”

For advertising campaigns this means: never let it be unclear, that whatever your target audience looks at or interacts with, is part of advertising.

You might place only a small hint, but you should always place a hint. Ideally, you play it loud and open – that’s called branded entertainment and quite a few brands have successfully adopted this approach. It doesn’t mean at all, that your storytelling can’t feel „authentic“ at the same time. It’s just clear, that it ain’t real.

If the audience is completely left in the dark about your true intentions (i.e. promote a brand or product), you might cause some upstir as mentioned above.
You might even find it backfires on you – people will get upset if they find out you tricked them into paying attention to your advertising!