Jury Still Out on 'Lost''s Sponsored Alternate Reality Gaming

If you're a die-hard "Lost" fan like me, you've noticed some fake spots for The Hanso Foundation, the shadowy organization supposedly behind much of the show's mystery, running amidst the legit commercials.

The first spot I noticed carried a toll-free number, which I called from work and couldn't make heads or tails of. I figured it was part of something bigger that I didn't have time for. I was right. "Lost" has become the launching pad for an alternate reality game--one that since its kickoff has incorporated at least two obvious brand tie-ins.

ARGs can be quite immersive, engaging and fun--attributes that undoubtedly make them attractive to advertisers. One just wonders whether brands can be a part of ARGs without spoiling the purity of the experience. Without a doubt, each player will have varying degrees of tolerance for advertising within the experience, and there's no indication that "Lost"'s ARG has been ruined by allowing advertisers in. Historically, advertising has played an important role in ARGs, and there's no doubt it will continue to do so.



But for me, Lost came dangerously close to jumping the shark when it tagged a Hanso Foundation spot with the URL, which was a less-than-subtle tie-in for Sprite. I say it came close because, by and large, the Sprite brand didn't distract from what was going on in the game. And the subLYMONal site did fulfill its function, which was to provide a clue for game participants.

Recently, though, I think the game did engage in some shark-jumping when it used another Hanso Foundation spot, which drove participants to a Web site that turned out to be a tie-in for Jeep. This time, game players stumbled across a video file on the site for an old Jeep CJ-7 commercial-- something that may or may not prove to be significant later. Either the brand could be critical to the game's overall storyline and future development, or it might be a distraction. I haven't the faintest idea, but I'm understandably wary.

Others aren't as skeptical as I am. There are quite a few online forums on which clues are being shared and game participants are connecting, including this one. Sure, there are plenty of folks still quite happy to continue playing the game. But it begs the question: What if the game turns out to be little more than a commercial?

Personally, I'd be more disappointed than Ralphie in "A Christmas Story" when he found out that the message his Little Orphan Annie Secret Decoder Ring revealed was nothing more than a lame Ovaltine commercial. And there are apparently thousands who have invested significant time in playing the game by examining obscure Web sites, deciphering clues and sharing possible answers. I guess we'll see what happens. It could be a big win for the brands involved, or a big disappointment.

Where do you think this is headed? Swing by the Spin and let us know what you think of this kind of immersive, cross-platform advertising.

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