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Immersive Marketing… Alternative Realities or Plain Old Delusions?

I was in Montreal yesterday watching the presentations at the IAB MIXX Conference. There were some interesting speakers and I had an opportunity to catch up with some of them at the show.

One of the presentations peaking my interest today was the one delivered by Pierre Côté of GRAMSCLO. GRAMSCLO is an agency that produces alternative reality content that can be branded and executed across multiple platforms. Most of the audience would agree that the presentation was somewhat confusing as Pierre attempted to convey the value of the concept it got buried somewhat in translation. So, I caught up with him afterward to talk about alternative reality games and why they are starting to make some noise.

Remember the Blair Witch Project? You might recall the media hype surrounding the film before it launched, while it was playing and shortly after. The movie was positioned as a true story but soon after audiences streamed into theatres it was revealed (in rumors at first) that the film had been a hoax developed by a clever New York based team that went on to form the marketing company called Campfire.

Pierre shared a Campfire case study in his talk for Audi A3. A news story appeared last year complete with footage from the surveillance cameras, of a car robbery at a dealership. The piece included the actual robbery, the police arrival, the wanted ads and the whole shebang that took place after the alleged heist. Consumers, ever fascinated by who dunnits and criminal acts, spent a lot of time internationally viewing and sharing the news footage and the articles that had been generated as a result of the headlines.

There were even banners created and served across the web urging people to report any facts about the missing car. When the auto show came to town later that year, Audi had cordoned off an entire area on the show floor to feature a placard with a picture of the stolen vehicle showcasing what would have been there had the robbers not taken the car.


Results of the Audi A3 Campaign:

In the first 3 months of the campaign:

  • 45 million PR impressions
  • 2 million visitors
  • 500,000 story participants
  • 10,000 dealer leads
  • 4,000 test drives
  • 1,025 cars sold

Ok, I get the attraction here. I get the viral effect, the newsworthiness and even the entertainment factor. The results almost seal the deal but with consumers becoming savvier to this type of “creative PR” activity, I can’t help but feel a bit skeptical about the future of these tactics.

Here’s what I like about the use of ARGs in media:

The level of engagement is quite deep.

  • For consumers that take the bait and fall into the game, the quality of time spent is magnificent compared to more traditional ads.

Shareable Content in hot.

  • With multiple media touch points the alternative reality could potentially hit a runners high and become a coveted piece of urban legend.


  • Video production averages $1,000/min and media buys across major networks with a large emphasis on ROS mixed with highly targeted channels create a reasonable blended CPM. Social networking is where it really takes off.
  • A fairly high end program running for just over 40 days could be executed between $75k-$100K

Promotion of creativity.

  • This strategy provides a great channel for producers across all disciplines to push the boundaries and have some fun. I’ve seen murder news stories, stolen items, spooky sightings, fake hostile take-overs and I’m sure I’ll see more.

Here are my initial concerns:

Fundamentally, consumers don’t like being duped.

  • At its core, the tactic can be viewed as deceptive. Over the past year we’ve been focusing on transparency as a key ingredient to building strong communities and brand identity. The idea of a company creating bogus press releases, video and media units could backfire.
  • Consumers are used to separating advertising from reality. The ARG model as described in the Audi case study doesn’t allow the consumer to make the mental decision to evaluate the value proposition. Instead, it catapults the user into believing something that is not true and that’s playing with fire. Consumers are time-crunched and impressions are expensive. The value derived from these diversions must make up for the distraction.
  • It’s taken over ten years to develop the online channel as a respected source of news and information. The idea of corporations exploiting the space to get some attention seems backwards. When everyday is April Fool’s day, it stops being funny and becomes somehow delusional.

All that said, I believe that Pierre is pioneering a cutting edge space with few players in the game. I also think that Campfire is an agency to be watched as they are doing some really creative work. They just picked up 3 MIXX awards for their Verizon MyHome 2.0 campaign. I have to admit in all my skepticism, that the thinking at least on that campaign, is as fresh as it gets. If more campaigns arise that provide true value to the end consumer, I’ll become a serious fan of the tactic.

I’m curious to see how the content will keep fresh enough to dupe the public again and again. It’s an interesting study in psychology.

Maybe we like falling for alternative realities from time to time? Regardless, Pierre Côté, Campfire and I’m sure many others will be at the ready to capitalize on our naivety.


  1. iHeathen
    iHeathen October 8, 2008

    In my opinion, your skepticism of ARGs is based purely on an underestimation of the consumers ability to discern fiction from non-fiction. There have always been exceptions to the rule, but I would like to think that the average consumer is smart enough to tell the difference. And most times, they are. There was no backlash against the Blair Witch when people found out it was fake, nor was their any backlash against Audi, or Microsoft, or Steven Speilberg, or any of the other huge corporations who have already embraced the ARG very successfully. Plus, as a safety-net, the “this is not a game” mentality of some early ARGs has long been shied away from, in lieu of allowing people to knowingly participate a fictional experience like an ARG. The truly savvy designers are already onto that, just look at TheLostRing by McDonalds and AKQA/Avantgame, or The Lost Experience, or Heroes360. These alternate realities are very up front about their being fictitious, but the level of engagement and interaction they provide are still incredible. There’s no other form of marketing that make people extremely eagerly anticipate the next piece of communication with such fervor, or make consumers dissect, study and memorize a brand’s messages.

  2. SoniaC
    SoniaC October 8, 2008

    iHeathen, thanks for the comment. I don’t think that consumers are unable to discern fact from fiction. We’re living in times where consumers are savvier than ever. My perspective comes from the position of advising Fortune 500s on whether to invest in ARGs as media plays. Where the core objective is to have consumers believe something that is untrue, I feel it’s important to explore brand values against the proposition. If integrity and WYSIWYG is important to a brand, it may not be the right tactic. In my post I talked about the deep level of engagement and brand interaction and these are very strong traits that are unique to ARGs but I still think it’s important to exercise some caution on possible backlashes and also to evaluate the quality of the engagement that is being proposed. Media tactics should not be implemented just because they are cool. They need to fit strategically. Having said that, there are a number of creative ways to incorporate ARGs and I stand firm on my belief that Campfire and Pierre (and many others I hope to meet) are truly pioneering a cutting edge space.

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