ABC has gone a step too far with its viral marketing, and I have found that I am disturbed at the implications. What's at stake here is the very integrity of the peer-based Internet.
This past Wednesday, ABC aired its season finale of LOST. Now, I'm a big fan of the show. I even listen to the official podcast. So it was with some interest that I followed up on the many references to a web campaign centered on a site for a fictitious company called the Hanso Foundation.
ABC is hardly the first to use the Web to support a show. There is currently a very popular show in Canada called ReGenesis TV that has extensive web tie-ins and fake sites that promote and further the show's plot through parallel threads and supporting information. Electronic Arts pioneered this "genre" with a short-lived episodic game called Majestic that used fictitious web sites, along with actual faxes and cryptic voice mails left on your home phone.
In effect, these campaigns become a game in which participants willingly suspend disbelief and delve into these created worlds to search for hidden passwords and other keys that unlock secrets, clues, and even tangential threads to the main vehicle's plot.
Sounds intriguing and it is even quite fun. ABC, however, has gone a step too far.
In deconstructing the campaign, it seems quite obvious that ABC has hired a PR/Marketing firm with some chops to conduct a wide-spread stealth campaign to promote the Hanso tie-in and, ultimately, LOST itself. Here's what we know:
- References in the show itself point to the Hanso Foundation
- In a recent episode, Sawyer is reading a script called Bad Twin which has now been made into a book which, too, references the Hanso Foundation
Fine so far. But here's where ABC starts crossing the line:
- On May 24th, 2006 (the night of the LOST premier), a guest named Hugh McIntyre from the Hanso Foundation appeared on Jimmy Kimmel Live to disavow any connection between the "real" Hanso Foundation and the show LOST and the book Bad Twin. This was a live guest on an actual episode of Jimmy Kimmel Live.
- On the morning of May 25th, Robin Roberts promoted on Good Morning America the book Bad Twin. While she didn't quite pull it off without laughing and getting a ribbing from Charlie and Diane, at no point did she disclose that what she was saying was tied into this campaign. She attempted (poorly) to promote this as a straight news piece.
- In the May 19th episode of the Official Lost Podcast, Executive Producers Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse discuss how they seem to have offended the "real" Hanso Foundation without disclosing or even hinting at the fact that it's all fiction.
Finally, here is where I believe ABC has clearly gone too far:
The Hanso site is clearly fictitious, and a visitor can get into the game, as it were, by entering keys and passwords to reveal clues.
Fine. No problem.
However, when you start Googling for clues and answers, you will find dozens and dozens of links to various LOST-oriented boards and wikis. It seems that the PR firm, LOST staffers, and ABC employees have salted these boards with clues and answers and outright positive propaganda for the show. The problem is that they have done so posing as "real people" and without disclosing their affiliation and their reach is far and wide. These salted comments are mixed in amongst legitimate users, so it's all but impossible to tell who is who. It appears that they have hit every major board and fan site associated with the show and have, I suspect, even created entirely new ones to help control spin should things go out of control.
This is a very clever and very well-executed campaign. Kudos to the firm that has done this. They've certainly earned their (large) paycheck.
However, they are violating a trust on the Internet that threatens, as I've stated, the very integrity of the peer-based Internet. This is inexcusable.
When you visit a site, listen to a podcast, or watch a news show, you trust implicitly in its sourcing. The site falls into one of several cognitive categories: the "official" site for such-and-such, a fan site, a rumor site, a trusted news organization, a blog, etc. You know implicitly based on these categories how to treat the information you read, hear, or see: with a grain of salt, as truth, or outright bunk.
The problem with ABC's viral marketing campaign is that they have unilaterally blurred these lines—sometimes effectively, sometimes all-too-well. Can I trust what 'fanboy2110' has to say on such-and-such message board? Can I trust the Producers of the show in what has been up until now an upfront, if not guarded, discussion of the show? Can I trust Good Morning America to deliver actual news and not blatant product tie-ins?
Now, I'm not naive enough to think that this is the first time such a thing has been foisted on the American Public. Nor, in fairness to ABC, is this the first time marketers have used "real people" on message boards and in online communities to promote a product or service. However, this is the first time I can recall that the lines have been so blurred by such an intensive campaign.
It all comes down to two things: the willing suspension of disbelief, and trust in a source. In the former, the designers of this campaign have forgotten a crucial step: allowing the viewer, reader, listener to willingly and knowing cross the threshold between the real world and fiction. In the latter, ABC has now violated that trust and has substantially soiled the integrity of the Internet—such as it is.