Yesterday, my dad handed me his latest issue of Wired magazine and told me to take a look at an article about "the future of advertising". The article, written by Frank Rose, talked about ARG's, or Alternate Reality Games, and focused on the rather elaborate effort made by Trent Reznor of the band Nine Inch Nails for their latest album, Year Zero, released in April of 2007. The game was fairly well publicized, but to give you an idea of the scope of the effort, it began in February as clues to a website found hidden in T-shirts sold at one of the band's concerts. It continued on as hints hidden in flash drives hidden at concerts and in songs as they were released. And it ended as a secret underground concert in which fans were contacted via cell phones they were given, driven to the concert in a bus with blacked out windows, and then rushed out by "SWAT" teams with flashing lights and flash bombs. All of this was Reznor's idea of "the world's most elaborate album cover" for a concept album about a scary, dystopian future, and it got millions of people involved and excited about what was coming next.
This is by no means the only time that this kind of thing has been done. Rose claims that it all started with Steven Spielberg's AI: Artificial Intelligence, and has been done for everything from Halo 2 to Audi to the television show LOST. I've seen some of my friends get very excited for similar games about JJ Abrams' upcoming film Cloverfield, and the Batman film to be released this summer, Dark Knight.
Reznor really emphasized that what he was doing with Year Zero was not marketing, and ARG's don't necessarily have to be driven by a marketing perspective. Rose mentioned at least one game, called Perplex City, that attempted to get people to solve very similar types of puzzles to tell a story. However, it ended up being too expensive and difficult to keep the game going, and as far as I know, no non-marketing models of ARG's have really succeeded. But so what? We've discovered a way to get people to really engage with a brand and to seek out more information instead of having to bash them over the heads with it. Hooray! Right? It certainly won't work for audiences of all ages and interests, and it certainly won't work for all brands (or will it?), but there is a group of young, tech-savvy people out there who advertisers have been tearing their hair out trying to reach, and Reznor's project and others like it have reached them in spades. Maybe this really is the future of online advertising: not banners or silly advergames, but hugely elaborate puzzles that get large groups of people feverishly involved.