Future Entertainment: The Land of Make-Believe

From muscling-in on the island in “Lost” to creating a new island in Second Life, big brands are enticing consumers with games, puzzles and simulated worlds.

Big brands are increasingly trying to create marketing campaigns that consumers will not just accept, but actively embrace. But if merely showing users ads will no longer do the trick — and many experts say that’s a given — what will? As marketers struggle to answer that question, some are experimenting with branding initiatives that rely on user participation. Pontiac, Microsoft, and Jeep all recently launched efforts aimed at seducing consumers to enter virtual worlds or take up the challenge of puzzles or games designed to be habit-forming.

Motoring Into Second Life

In hopes of creating a cadre of brand advocates, Pontiac created its own Second Life island, Motorati, and then opened it to virtual residents for development.

To populate its island, Pontiac gave away acres of land to registered users who qualified, with one condition: “They could build anything they wanted for free, as long as it fit into the category of ‘car culture,’ ” says Mike Monello, a partner at Campfire, the digital agency involved in the program.

Pontiac built a showroom and a music stage, but the avatars created everything else: a Fairgrounds Speedway, with twice weekly races and winners’ prizes; a monster truck course; and clothing stores selling sexy women’s racing clothes.

In a club, DJ Andy Asylum (in real life, a UK DJ named Andy Churchill) spins the turntables from a booth fashioned out of a Pontiac Solstice. Meanwhile, a virtual drive-in theater streams clips from actual movies.

While Pontiac only reaches a small number of consumers through Second Life, size isn’t the issue right now. “A lot of people have a misunderstanding of communities like this, and think they’re filled with 14-year-olds, but they’re actually 35- to 45-year-olds — people in our sweet spot,” says Mark-Hans Richer, director of marketing at Pontiac. “They’re progressive and intelligent consumers, who are becoming harder to find.”

But even if these customers can be found in Second Life, will Motorati drive them to a real showroom? “That’s the goal,” Monello says, adding that today, it might be avatars who sit at a virtual bar, talking up Pontiac, but tomorrow it will be the real people behind those avatars.

Richer adds that as people grow accustomed to a virtual Pontiac, they’ll grow more comfortable with Pontiac in the real world. “There’s no limitation to what’s available to us,” he says.

Thinking Inside the Box

You’d think that the prize — a 60-mile ride into space — would be sufficient incentive for Microsoft customers to play Vanishing Point, an “alternate reality” puzzle created to drive interest for the new operating system, Vista. 

But the challenge itself was tempting enough to create its own buzz.

“This community loves hard puzzles,” says Joe DiNunzio, president and CEO of 42 Entertainment, which worked with Microsoft and co-sponsor AMD to create the challenge. “They like to receive community fame for their efforts.”

Vanishing Point started with a note from “Loki” at Microsoft Way. The note accompanied an ominous-looking box containing a video, which was dropped on the desks of about 100 Windows “influencers” — people who wrote the most about the software on the Web. The video, which contained a cryptic message that disappeared after being viewed, Mission Impossible-style, sent bloggers to their keyboards to spread the word about the global challenge.

Followers wasted no time digging for clues, which ultimately led to an official launch party at the Bellagio in Las Vegas during the Consumer Electronics Show. About 500 people turned up for the party, which was taped by technology news site and uploaded to YouTube.

Additional live events —and three more boxes to crack open — happened each weekend throughout January. revealed clues and a countdown clock. Players registered at the site and visited regularly to check their points and review prizes.

Without prompting from Microsoft, Neowin became a central point for collaboration on solving the puzzle. The challenge was also picked up by both local and national media.

Throughout the game, people’s social networking urge appeared to surpass their competitive streaks, as participants banded together to work on puzzles.

“This audience is extraordinarily good at self-communicating,” says Brian Marr, Microsoft’s group marketing manager for Windows Vista. “You can’t legislate or orchestrate that. They’re going to do it themselves.”


Lost and Found

During the final episodes of last season’s “Lost,” ABC introduced “The Lost Experience,” an alternate reality game centering on the Hanso Foundation — the organization supposedly responsible for all the mysterious happenings on the show’s island.

One of four lead sponsors (the others were Sprite, Monster, and Verizon), Jeep wasn’t content to just run ads. Instead, the automaker created a subplot to weave the new Jeep Compass into the story. Jeep’s game Web site — — kicked off in May just as the “Lost” season was ending, and ran through September prior to the new season premiere.

The game begins with a character named Rachel Blake, who uncovers a plot by the Hanso Foundation to use a newly ordered fleet of Jeeps for nefarious purposes. She informs fictional DaimlerChrysler employee William T. Kilpatrick, who cancels the order. He then helps Rachel track down the bad guys and stop them by embedding crucial information into Jeep videos and other advertising. He also gives her a Jeep Compass to assist in her crusade across Europe. Web site passwords were hidden in various Jeep ads, both online and off, throughout the game, to continuously drive people back to for more clues and to advance through the game.

At a live concert sponsored by Jeep, an actor playing Kilpatrick stormed the stage and began spilling his guts about the answers the players were seeking. Before he could reveal anything crucial, two thugs pulled up in a van, grabbed him and took off. The abduction was videotaped and garnered over 300,000 views on YouTube.

“We logged on to AOL Instant Messaging as Kilpatrick, and you wouldn’t believe how many people wanted to chat with him,” says Adam Wilson, creative director for the Jeep brand at digital marketing agency Organic. “He gave some of these players tasks to do, such as going to a specific forum and telling them that he would be posting a video to YouTube in 24 hours. Then we went to those forums to see if they posted the message — and they always did.”

Overall, more than 1 million page views from 400,000 unique visitors were generated to Over a third of the “Lost” game players also visited other DaimlerChrysler Web sites, spending an average of 10 minutes each.

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