On April 14, someone calling himself Sean began posting the contents of a mysterious, rusted storage locker he bought from eBay on his brand new Tumblr, A Curious Find.
"My name is Sean and this is my first blog. I started it because I came across something I feel I just have to share… and on the off chance someone reads this who has some answers or information about it, please contact me!"
Today, after a dozen posts displaying nightmarish children’s drawings, a handgun and a pair of VHS tapes featuring gun-toting children musing about violence, Sean was outed as a fraud on Reddit.
"It’s a fake," wrote a user named Siegcow. "Everything about this reeks of viral marketing."
The giveaways were obvious. Why was Sean so slow to post pictures of his find? Why was the supposedly found footage so well produced, and why was there only an Internet-friendly 57 seconds of it? And who would put all this evidence in one box for someone to find?
"It's almost like someone found a briefcase filled with horror movie tropes," wrote Siegcow.
Reddit was right. The Tumblr and the videos are apparently part of a stealth ad campaign to promote the movie "Partisan," produced by Australian film company Madman Entertainment.
The Internet was quick to mete out punishment. Partisan’s trailer is being mass-disliked on YouTube, with commenters slamming the studio for being deceptive. The Reddit post outing the campaign has nearly 3,000 upvotes, making it the top post on the Bestof subReddit.
That said, 52,000 people have now seen the trailer on YouTube for the relatively obscure movie. By that measure--arguably the only one that matters--the campaign achieved its goal. "If people are talking about it, it definitely helps," said Ian Schaefer, CEO of digital shop Deep Focus and former VP of new media at Miramax Films. "Regardless of how."
But the fiasco raises the question, why do audiences embrace some alternate-reality games while ganging up on others? Where did Madman Entertainment go wrong?
Ever since "The Blair Witch Project" used cleverly planted Internet "clues" to fool audiences into thinking it was a documentary, marketers have tried promoting their work with stunts or games that blur the line between reality and fiction. Sometimes the effort pays off, as in Audi’s legendary Art of the Heist. Other times, it just makes people mad, like the Los Angeles woman who sued Toyota in 2009 for making her think she was being stalked as part of its "The Other You" campaign promoting its Matrix model.
The difference between an alternate-reality game that works and one that gets you sued is remembering to play along with your audience, not trying to dupe them, says Michael Monello, chief creative officer of Campfire, the New York agency behind 2013’s award-winning campaign for Cinemax’s Hunted, Byzantium.
"People love a well-told fiction story presented in a ‘reality’ format, but only if they believe the storytellers/marketers aren’t trying to ‘fool’ them," said Monello via email. "As soon as the audience thinks they are being ‘fooled’ or lied to, then the interest turns away from the story and themes and into an investigation into transparency like that Reddit thread."
"If audiences believe you are honoring their intelligence and that your intent is to entertain rather than hoodwink, they will play along," he added.
Madman Entertainment did not immediately respond to requests for comment (it’s late in Australia), and neither did "Sean." So it’s unclear whether the campaign was produced in-house or with an agency, or whether Madman is pleased with the results.
For his part, Schaefer offers a caveat. "If you do this (and this is the classic ‘ARG’ trap) you have to do it right if you want to excite the base," he said. "This is clearly not doing that."
"That said, its popularity on Reddit for any reason will probably be a trigger for mainstream media coverage," he said.
For others considering a stealth campaign, Monello offers a quick creative test.
"If you were to put a link to the trailer and a logo for the film at the bottom of the page, or in the description of the videos on the YouTube page, would the story you are telling still be compelling and would people engage?" he asked. "If the answer is no, then the story can’t stand on its own, and all you have is a gimmick."