Branding Beat - Cut Through the Noise

Alternate Reality Games: Intense and Immersive Viral Marketing

I’m a big fan of superhero movies, and The Dark Knight is one of my favorites. Naturally, then, any scrap of information about the upcoming sequel, The Dark Knight Rises, gets me ridiculously excited. But even as new photos and press releases hit the Internet, I keep checking for answers to my biggest question: When does the ARG start?

In simple terms, an ARG, short for alternate reality game, is a very particular form of viral marketing. It combines real-world and online experiences to tell a story, one that players interact with through websites, emails, text messages, newspapers, phone calls, real-world events, physical objects—anything you can think of. It’s an immersive undertaking in which fans find clues, solve puzzles, and work together to figure out where a story is leading. The games are usually created to promote a product, such as a film, or a video game (like Halo 2) or a music album (like Nine Inch Nails’ Year Zero).

Harvey Dent campaign rallies

Fans participated in several fake campaign rallies for Harvey Dent.

Take The Dark Knight’s ARG as an example. Clues began to surface in 2007, including a website and real billboards promoting the fictional Harvey Dent’s run for Gotham City District Attorney. Things got even more interesting a few months later during San Diego Comic Con, where some attendees found dollar bills defaced by the Joker. After painting their faces in Joker makeup and following a scavenger hunt through the city, the players were rewarded with their own Joker henchmen masks while fans online got to see the first trailer for the movie.

Bat signal on the Sears Tower

The bat signal shines in blue across the Sears Tower.

For a year, players completed all manners of missions, ranging from finding cakes with cell phones baked into them to staging fake campaign rallies for Harvey Dent to watching the bat signal shine on skyscrapers in Chicago and New York. At the game’s end, many fans snagged tickets to a free screening of the movie days before it hit theaters.

But why do companies spend the big bucks to fund these alternate reality games? They’re free to play, and often start with clues so subtle that only hardcore fans spot them. Not to mention, sometimes it takes months before players find out what product the ARG is actually promoting. In the end, are these immensely intricate puzzles worth the effort?

Short answer: When done well, yes. Here are a few reasons why:

  • ARGs can change the way people perceive a brand. Jane McGonigal, former employee of ARG-maker 42 Entertainment and developer of an Olympics-themed ARG sponsored by McDonald’s, suggests that an ARG gives a company the chance to “make something amazing, give it away, and then take credit for it.” If you had a blast gathering clues and solving riddles for a game you found out was all McDonald’s idea, wouldn’t that elevate your opinion of the company?
  • ARGs can increase brand awareness and attract new customers. After conducting an ARG promoting the Audi A3, the car company saw online buying activity increase 73 percent compared to past marketing campaigns. When millions of people are participating in or following an ARG, that’s millions of potential new customers who are now taking notice of the brand.
  • ARGs create loyal fans. These games inspire extreme dedication in their followers—a man in Florida, for instance, waited outside in a hurricane for an ARG-related payphone to ring. Through addictive puzzles and memorable events, ARGs generate brand missionaries who share their excitement with other consumers.
  • ARGs put unique promotional products into consumers’ hands. Those fans who earned Joker masks, Harvey Dent campaign swag, or copies of the Gotham Times during the Dark Knight game have something tangible to remember their experiences, and the film franchise, by. Who do you think will be first in line to see the sequel in 2012?

My involvement in the Dark Knight ARG was minimal at best—but it was still one of the coolest things I’ve experienced on the Internet. I am crossing my fingers that another ARG starts as The Dark Knight Rises looms closer; a puzzle involving Twitter led to the first image of the villain Bane, but otherwise the trail has petered out. Even without a second ARG, though, my investment in the Batman brand is sky-high—thanks in large part to the ARG for The Dark Knight.

What do you think? Had you ever heard of ARGs before? Would you consider participating in one? Has a company ever piqued your interest in an unusual way, or with unusual promo products?

Image credit to zek_rahman, forklift, and vpisteve.


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  1. Mandy Kilinskis

    Great post, Rachel!

    I’m a huge fan of ARGs. I think this form of marketing is absolutely brilliant – I can’t think of a single thing that would get me more excited for an upcoming film/product/etc.

    A Hunger Games viral marketing website launched earlier this week for the upcoming movie. I can’t seem to get myself in to register, but I’m definitely trying. I’m ready to tweet and text and run around cities like a mad woman for this movie.

    • Rachel

      Ooh, I didn’t know about the Hunger Games viral, that’s great! I’ll have to read the books soon so that I can join you in running around like a mad woman. 🙂 Thanks for commenting, Mandy!

  2. Lauren G.

    I’ve never heard of ARG’s before. Being an avid Batman fan, I now want to play/be involved with this!! Even though it’s “free,” it’s still a great marketing tool by the movie marketers I think. Anything Batman movie related: trailers, interviews, pictorials, anything I can get my hands on, I want! So, this ARG thing sounds pretty much like awesomeness to me! Great post! Batman <3

    • Rachel

      Great points, Jana! The nerdy stuff definitely fits well for these kinds of games. And you’re so right about the “backwards marketing” that ARGs can accomplish, especially since a lot of these games don’t reference the product until after players have already become attached to the game. For example, there’s one I’m semi-following right now that’s known as “Icefly,” but as far as I’m aware no one knows what product it’s related to yet. But once that becomes clear, there will be a lot of people already invested in the product because of the ARG.

      Thanks for commenting, Jana!

  3. Cybernetic SAM

    This type of viral marketing is awesome! It is fun and fan participatory is really a big win for fans because you get to be so closely involved with the things you love! I love it! Great Post!

    • Rachel

      So true, Sam! The participatory aspect is really important, because being actively involved in something like this generates a lot more customer loyalty than most other types of marketing. Plus, it’s way fun!

  4. LK

    I didn’t know about this Batman thing, but that’s awesome. Actually letting customers/fans interact and be part of the experience is a great way to maintain interest.

    If I had enough interest in something I would definitely participate in these ARGs.

    • Rachel

      I totally agree! Fan interaction definitely maintains interest and builds loyalty. And the way many ARGs engage with fans is incredibly interactive and immersive; they’re creating a lot of lifelong customers. 🙂

  5. Jen

    I would participate in a Harry Potter ARG for sure. Too bad it’s all over now. 🙁 This Batman ARG would be totally fun though.

    I liked this post Rachel! I love learning about cool new marketing techniques that are out there 🙂

    • Rachel

      Glad you enjoyed it, Jen! And a Harry Potter ARG would have been AWESOME. Fortunately, it sounds like the Pottermore website, while not an ARG, will have some similarities in terms of fan interaction. So we still have that to look forward to 🙂

  6. amy

    I’ve never participated in an ARG campaign before, but now I WANT TO! The Batman one seems really cool and is a great way to interact with fans 🙂 Super post Rachel!!

    • Rachel

      That was pretty much my reaction when I started following the Dark Knight ARG–it was only a few weeks before the movie was going to premiere, so I had missed nearly a year’s worth of the game, and I *so* wished I had found it sooner! Hopefully this next one for the sequel actually becomes something more so I can obsess over it. 🙂

    • Amanda

      Same here Amy! I never really understood what they did/are. But now I have a better idea. I just don’t know how to really get started playing one still. Seems a little fuzzy still. But I could get into a Dark Knight one–that was the first Batman movie I saw–and it hooked me in. =) Great post Rachel!

  7. Jill Tooley

    Stellar blog, Rachel. Whenever I wear my “I believe in Harvey Dent” campaign t-shirt, people stop me to ask who he is and which office he’s running for. The fake promo materials were so convincing! Aaron Eckhart’s face must not be as recognizable as I thought…

    I absolutely LOVED the interactive stuff they offered for The Dark Knight! This became really popular around the time the first pictures of Heath Ledger’s Joker were released. Rightfully so, in my opinion, because those pics got me incredibly pumped for the movie. When you’re only offered little breadcrumbs here and there, it makes it that much more tempting to follow them! I’d gladly solve an elaborate puzzle to catch a glimpse of what they’re working on for The Dark Knight Rises. Please let me know if you hear anything!

    Interactive/viral marketing like this seems to work best for films and entertainment-related promotions, but I wonder if there’s ever been any equally cool (and successful) campaigns for brands. It would have to be one of those household-name brands in order to garner this much attention, I think.

    On another note, I still haven’t gotten around to reading the Hunger Games series! Now that I know they’re doing viral marketing for it, I may have to check it out sooner rather than later so I can get the full experience!

    • Mandy Kilinskis

      I have the books! You can borrow them!

    • Rachel

      Ahh, I’m jealous of your Harvey Dent swag! A friend at my old job brought in a copy of the Gotham Times one day probably a week or so before the movie, and I freaked out a little, haha. He had never heard of the ARG and had gotten it from a friend who worked at a movie theater, I think. I was so jealous. 🙂 The offering of breadcrumbs that you mention is definitely what tempts me to these things. I’ll for sure let you know if I hear more about the TDKR viral!

      I agree, ARGs work really well with entertainment promos; you have so many opportunities for worldbuilding and extra content that you can’t fully explore in, say, a two-hour movie. I would say the McDonalds and the Audi A3 ARGs I mentioned in the blog are some successful non-entertainment ARGs … the Economist link in the first bullet point also talks about one sponsored by the British Red Cross to raise awareness, which I thought was another really interesting way to use ARGs. I’ve heard of ones that were done for Reebok, and I think Nike as well–not sure how successful they were, though. Long story short, there are other examples, but I would say the film/entertainment-related ones are definitely the most popular. 🙂

      Thanks for the great comment, Jill!

  8. Joseph Giorgi

    I have yet to participate in an alternate reality game, but I totally get the appeal. What fan WOULDN’T want to be part of something so immersive and memorable, especially when it surrounds a product or event that they were looking forward to anyway. Participants in these kinds of games have a direct role in ensuring that the brand being marketed goes on to become a success.

    Amazing post, Rachel! 😀

  9. P. F. Lewis

    You have an awesome article Rachel, I’m a game addict so I appreciate post like this, keep on posting. I love Harry Potter ARG.

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