It began with a staged car theft at a New York City Audi dealership. Then, much to the confusion of event organizers, Audi posted handbills seeking information about the theft at the New York International Auto Show last March. That beginning, as intriguing as the start of a John Grisham novel, was then augmented by ads -- placed in major magazines, blogs, and streaming video -- featuring fictional people purporting to capture moments of the whodunit tale. It was all done in the name of generating chatter about Audi.
RISKY AND UNTRIED. Actors from this cyberspace/terrestrial play have shown up at a major musical festival and will be in character when they stage fights, thefts, or escapes -- it's hard to know -- in Los Angeles at the E3 Expo show (May 18 to 20) for the interactive media industry. The whole marketing campaign has included so many risky and untried elements that Audi had to employ a full-time lawyer as part of the ad team.
Audi's approach to launching A3 is so unorthodox, it's little wonder that executives involved call it "alternate reality branding." Such marketing campaigns combine aspects of real events, fiction, online video, blogs, journalism, and, finally, even some conventional print and TV ads. They create a unique form of branded entertainment that skates across multiple media platforms and live events to attract young consumers who have all but turned their backs on 30-second TV spots and static Internet banners and print ads.
The model for this new type of advertising came from a burgeoning online pastime called alternate reality gaming, or ARG, which blends factual events with the imaginings of game creators. Tens of thousands of computer geeks play every week.
The effect of such ARG ad campaigns on consumers: Many reached by a piece of the drama have no idea whether they are seeing advertising or some sliver of real life. But according to Lee Newman, a McKinney & Silver group account director, even consumers who zap 100% of ads at home usually won't mind finding out later that the campaign is advertising -- as long as they find it engaging and creative.
"People don't hate advertising. They hate advertising that is bad or irrelevant," he says. Hitting consumers on the head or grabbing their attention for 30 seconds is out. "Engaging consumers so they follow your brand is the new holy grail," says Brad Brinegar, CEO of McKinney & Silver, which is based in Durham, N.C.
ZEALOUS FOLLOWERS. The beginning of the campaign couldn't have been more unlikely. On Mar. 31 an actor Audi hired to play the role of Ian Yarbrough, a computer hacker and partner in a company that recovers lost and stolen art, sees that a notorious art thief has stolen an A3 from a Manhattan dealership. Ian needs the computer files stashed in the stolen A3, which he tracks to a New Jersey chop shop. Circumstances force him to steal the car back from the thieves. The midtown dealership from which the car had been stolen turns into a "real life" crime scene complete with police tape, a smashed glass door, and security officers standing guard.
Some New York City gamers even showed up at the dealership to check out the scene. Posters seeking information about the stolen car went up at the dealership and the New York Auto Show and in wild postings (handbills stuck on walls in high-traffic areas) in 10 cities. Ian then went on the run, with police mistaking him for the original thief. Actual ads for Lastresortretrieval.com, Ian, and his partner Nisha's fictitious company, appeared in the back of May issues of Wired, Esquire, Robb Report, and USA Today. They looked like real ads for real companies specializing in art recovery.
McKinney & Silver spokesman Janet Northen says a journalist from a major magazine sent an e-mail through an advertised Web site hoping to speak to Ian or Nisha as a source for a story. "We e-mailed him back saying they were unreachable and out of the country, which seemed like the best response," says Northen.
SPREADING THE TALE. After that, the story starts to get as confusing as an episode of Fox's 24, especially if you've missed the first few episodes of a season. Nisha gets herself hired by Audi to recover the car, though the company doesn't know her associate Ian is the suspect. The story goes on from there, with the actors advancing the "real life" plot. Story followers can tap into e-mails, security films viewable on the Net, and blogs that the characters use to communicate within the story. As of May 9, the campaign story, the "Art of the Heist," had acquired more than 125,000 followers on various Web sites including StolenA3.com, Lastresortretrieval.com, and Virgilkingofcode.com -- all created by Audi to support the game.
Fans have also launched Web sites, such as Smirkbox.com and Argn.com, that enable devotees to follow the action. The fan sites are a necessity for anyone who wants to delve into the story. Car-enthusiast sites, such as VWVortex.com, have followed the story as well. "Connecting the auto people with the gaming people was a huge bonus," says McKinney's Newman.
The online play eventually made it to Coachella, the Indio (Calif.) music festival held on May 1. There, Ian and Nisha showed up in character, intending to incorporate a handful of real online gamers to play a part in the unfolding story that crosses between cyberspace and real life. One problem: The real gamers arrived hours earlier than expected, skirted security around the Audi tent, and forced Chelsea Films, the producer of the online video for the story, to change the script on the spot and even incorporate some of its own production people in the story.
GIVING UP CONTROL. That level of unpredictability and spontaneity is precisely what draws the ARG crowd to a campaign like this. The day after Coachella, blogs were dominated by chatter about how the gamers invited into the story messed up the script. At the E3 show on May 18, a VH-1 interviewer is expected to interview another of the story's characters, Virgil, without giving up his fictional status.
Starting the week of Apr. 26, Audi finally began running TV ads to promote the A3, but the ads directly tied into the game. The camera panned all around the inside and outside of the car, showing off its most desirable qualities, such as an especially large sunroof. But the slate of copy on the screen instructed: "If you have any information regarding the location of a stolen 2006 A3 with VIN#: WAUZZZ8P65A045963," you should report it on the Audiusa.com/a3 Web site. Audi tagged print ads with the same plea for info. The team devised the ads to make sense without being part of the game, but gamers understood the ads in a different context.
Audi of America executives say they aren't accustomed to giving up so much control over the marketing of a new vehicle. Marketers usually employ highly planned, expensively produced commercials, and buy time on specific shows to run them. A campaign like "Art of the Heist" is more like lighting a fire in a dry wood and waiting to see what happens.
WILL THEY BUY? "Audi is not a fear-based brand," says Stephen Berkov, the director of advertising. He compares a campaign like "Art of the Heist" to a jet engine turned on its end, "sucking people into the intake." Although he declined to disclose his ad budget for launching the A3, it probably totals $15 million to $20 million, of which about $3 million to $4 million will go to "Heist." Audi will dedicate the rest to traditional TV and print buys.
Still, in constructing an elaborate "alternate reality" game, Audi is risking that few of the people following the action will care about the A3. Are there many potential A3 buyers in this group? "Probably," says McKinney's group creative director, Jonathan Cude. That's a far cry from the usual certainty advertisers look for when spending tens of millions of dollars to launch a new vehicle. The target market for the A3 are men from the ages of 25 to 34, college-educated, and earning an average of $125,000 a year.
Nonetheless, even if the early gamers drawn into "Heist" don't buy a car this year, Cude says, Audi believes in the importance of letting prospective customers know that the company is doing something cool and highly advanced -- not the same old ad campaign.
BUZZ IS EVERYTHING. Some consumers clearly like the approach, and others don't. An Atlanta ARG player, using the screen name Argitect, posted on the Argn.com site: "It grabbed my attention in the beginning and, over the weekend, it reeled me in." Another poster, who had initially believed he was navigating a real car-theft story, wrote the following after catching on to the marketing gimmick: "This is about the worst idea in the history of bad marketing ideas. It's up there with the tobacco execs saying cigarettes aren't addictive." A responder named Cookster fired back, "Two words buddy: Lighten Up... Now get back in bed, and you can reminisce about the good old days when adverts only used to appear on the telly."
Experts in so-called "buzz marketing," designed to create word of mouth, say campaigns like Audi's "Art of the Heist" represent the future and can surpass traditional ads in regard to maintaining consumer brand-interest. "If I can involve one person really deeply in my brand in 50 cities, vs. 50 people in one city, I'll take the former every time," says Mark Hughes, author of Buzzmarketing: Get People to Talk About Your Stuff (Portfolio, 2005). Jon Berry of research company Nop World, and author of The Influentials (Free Press, 2004), argues that word of mouth is worth more than twice what it was in the 1970s in affecting consumer purchases, and it's 150% more influential than newspaper and magazine advertising or articles.
Absolute truth in advertising, it seems, does not always make for the most effective strategy. Kiley is BusinessWeek's marketing editor in New York