Rather like Orson Wells' famous "War of the Worlds" theatre vérité, the campaign for "Halo 3," a game depicting an apocalyptic battle between humans and invading aliens, attempts to treat the fictional characters of the game and its battles as future history.
The effort, via San Francisco-based Tag, an agency under the aegis of McCann Worldwide, includes real monuments, reminiscences by soldiers who will have fought the battles, and an elaborate diorama--think of those Civil War recreations in cotton and toothpick--that recreate several critical skirmishes in the game. The campaign, "Believe," also lionizes the game's central human leader, Master Chief Petty Officer John 117, and treats him as a real-life hero.
In the campaign, the diorama becomes a kind of Vietnam Memorial to veterans of the Halo wars, all to create historicity around the world of the game.
The effort includes a 90-second TV spot with shorter versions that take the viewer through the diorama, which uses cotton to simulate gunfire and cauliflower to simulate explosions. The media buy includes prime-time shows like "Family Guy," "The Office," "30 Rock" and "Bionic Woman," as well as cable channels like "Comedy Central," "Spike," "Sci-Fi" and others.
The Internet effort includes a large banner campaign directing consumers to halo3.com/believe, which offers a flyover of the diorama. When one clicks on certain soldiers, a documentary-style video runs in which that soldier, played by a human actor--long after the war--recounts the battle, and The Master Chief's role in saving his battalion.
Another video shows a Halo war veteran standing before the diorama talking about the war. Another has a Halo war veteran taking viewers to the Master Chief's ceremonial grave site.
Tag also created a Halo 3 channel on YouTube and Yahoo. And the campaign includes a Halo CBS NFL Sponsorship, as--in the U.K.--an in-cinema campaign that features a photojournalistic documentary about a Halo Battle. And in what has to be the ultimate expression of the campaign, a real statue to the Master Chief in Singapore.
The launch also pulls in a few dozen real-world brands from Pontiac to Wheaties, which put icons on its box cover.
Scott Duchon, creative director at Tag, says the traditional mode of marketing video games--showing footage from the games--wouldn't work as well in this case because hard-core gamers known as "Halo Nation" are already on board, and those fence-sitters (casual gamers who didn't buy Halo 1 and 2) are unlikely to rush out to buy version 3 after seeing a few seconds of the game.
"The idea was to expand the reach of the game beyond the hard-core 'Halo nation' ... the way to do that was to connect with casual gamers emotionally," he says. "There is this big market [for casual gamers], especially with platforms like [Nintendo's] Wii becoming a great attraction, so I think people are opening up to gaming even more. We want to show them that there's a story line in 'Halo 3,' stories they can relate to--like King Arthur, or Beowulf."
He says the agency looked at how historical figures become mythical through storytelling in an effort to create a reality around The Master Chief, "to try to take something fictional that takes place 500 years in the future and make it real ... the way Washington crossing the Delaware--that image--is embedded in our minds like a painting, so we thought by having figurines perfectly crafted, artfully done, that if we put enough care into it, it would feel unique."
Besides the central TV spot, there are four short films online, one launched as a teaser on Yahoo. Duchon says there will be three more short films to populate the interactive experience.
As for the potential for the diorama and the war stories to evoke criticism given the U.S.'s current undertaking in Iraq, Duchon responds that the feedback has thus far been positive. "We knew that if we weren't careful, someone would want to bring it up. Interesting enough, a lot of people who responded on blogs are war veterans, and they have said it captures something genuine."