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Wednesday, July 18, 2007

There's a Reason They're Called "Viral"

The latest craze sweeping the big entertainment and media companies is a new form of viral marketing: the puzzle form of the viral advertisement. These are interactive videos or websites that contain little hidden secrets about a particular product, but they are designed to look as though they have no connection with the product that they are promoting. In this way, this type of marketing can be insidious for the consumer, but it can even be dangerous for the promoter.

An example of this type of viral marketing is the "I Love Bees" website for Halo 2, or the recent "I believe in Harvey Dent" sites for the sequel to Batman Begins, "The Dark Knight," or the number of sites for the TV show, "Lost."

While the immediate goal of many people who take part in the viral marketing hunt is simply to find out what it all means, and what is actually being promoted, I believe that due to the ability of the internet to spoil, almost instantly, any secret, the searcher's ultimate goal is for a far more worthwhile prize: the first look. The people who are going to be the most dedicated to fishing through dozens of leads and surviving a load of puzzles isn't going to be your casual internet user, but a fan of the product that is being marketed, who wants to be the first to "crack the code" and discover the secret that it waiting at the end of the electronic rainbow. Hence, the many that sent their email addresses into the website "I Believe in Harvey Dent Too" we die-hard Batman fans who wanted to see exactly what information about the Dark Knight movie they would be treated to. The point of the viral marketing site isn't the marketing, but the prize.

And this is where the promoters enter dangerous waters: recently, there has been activity stemming from the owner of the website, "TheOneRing.net" (also owner of "KongIsKing.net"), in the form of the publishing of a website called "Rorschach's Journal," and another website seemingly tied to the character of Dr. Manhattan - both of these characters are from the comic series "The Watchmen," for which a movie has been rumored to be in development. These sites appear to be in the same vein as such viral marketing as websites for "Doctor Who" and "Lost." They are not.

Overzealous fans may take to creating their own viral marketing strategies, and as the very nature of the viral system is to maintain an appearance of non-relation to the corporate promoter, it can be difficult to determine exactly what is legitimate and what is wishful thinking. The legitimate viral site may lead to promotional stills from a movie, while the fan site may lead to a doctored or photoshopped photo of what the fan believes, or wishes, to be in the film. This can lead to all sorts of troubles, from anticipating fans being disappointed with the eventual film, to the image being so distasteful so as to cause "bad press" to form around the movie. Some sites may lead simply to nowhere, and confound fans who are expecting something, anything, to be revealed. At the very best, it will lead to frustration among fans, who must discern what to trust and what to dismiss.

I would even go as far as to say that fan-generated viral sites are akin to "cyber-squatting," generating hits while providing no benefit to the user. It is a double fraud, using the intellectual property of others to offer false promises to fans of that property.

There is such a thing as "bad publicity," and false viral marketing sites qualify as such.

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