The goal for marketing types in the Internet age is a "viral" ad campaign. You pull off some publicity stunt, there's tons of coverage on the internet, you wind up with millions of eyeballs for virtually no cost.
But viral campaigns are all about pushing the envelope. You have to shock people to get their attention, and this is where the potential for disaster lies.
Awful, hilarious disaster.
Like most of today's best video games, Splinter Cell is all about the gratuitous violence. While a reasonable marketing team would use half naked ladies and bitchin' guitar licks to promote their ultra-violent entertainment, the geniuses behind Splinter Cell decided nothing short of an act of terror would do the trick.
"We were going to get a billboard, but then we remembered Alan Rickman's brilliant viral marketing campaign in Die Hard."
So in April, 2010, Splinter Cell hired an actor to wear heavily bandaged hands (like a character from the game, apparently) and wave a fake gun at strangers in a New Zealand bar, and they did it without the obligatory "THIS IS A MARKETING STUNT" sign usually recommended for such endeavors. And we should note that the gun didn't look fake, at all.
This was not the gun.
Shockingly, the reaction from the bar patrons was not to go out and buy Splinter Cell. Instead, someone just ruined everything and yelled, "He's got a gun!" Things just went to hell from there.
"Excuse us, have you heard about the newest Mario game?"
The cops came, totally disrupting the rest of the "campaign," which was supposed to include a second actor who came in and saved the day. But he never got that far, on account of the chaotic storm of horror that occurs when a bandage-handed madman interrupts happy hour.
There were two bits of good news for the fake gunman, though. One: The police really thought he was wielding a real gun, so he's lucky he didn't get "splintered celled" with bullets himself. And two: convincing a bar full of people he was a real terrorist means he's really got the acting chops to be make it big someday.
Next stop: Broadway!
Alternate reality games have become pretty common in marketing. Customers love them and they're effective advertisements. For those unfamiliar with the concept, they're basically promotions that mix together all sorts of different media to guide players through a story. For example, if you sign up for a game about an upcoming movie, one of its characters might send you e-mails and leave you telephone messages with passwords in them to help you navigate a complex website.
Then Steve Buscemi comes to your house and makes you pancakes.
So last year, Toyota launched a game called "The Other You" to promote the Toyota Matrix. This game wasn't exactly a "game" as much as it was an elaborate, interactive pranking campaign. Or maybe better phrase would probably be "stalking campaign."
It was a tossup between this clown and stalkers for hire. Toyota went with the less-creepy option.
For one thing, you weren't playing for yourself. You signed up an unwitting friend. Then that friend got stalked by a stranger who called them and said they were going to come to their house. How Toyota thought this would compel people to buy their cars is unknowable.
When a Los Angeles woman started receiving threatening e-mails, a link to a fake MySpace page and a fake bill in her name for trashed hotel rooms, her first thought sure as hell wasn't Oh, must be a clever promotion from an automaker, perhaps I should visit one of their fine dealerships.
This is probably closer to her reaction.
The pretend stalking, which lasted for five days, scared her enough that she went to her family for protection and, according to her 10 million dollar lawsuit, her health and job performance suffered.
Toyota's counterargument was that she consented to the game, which makes perfect sense except for the fact that she had absolutely no clue what was going on. The results of the lawsuit are still pending, but in the meantime look for Toyota's new "Buy a Corolla or we'll send an axe murderer to your house" initiative.
"Just kidding! I'm actually going to murder you whether you buy a Camry or not."
One country that has been hit particularly hard by the worldwide financial meltdown is Latvia, and as a result its government was desperate to cut costs. Everybody in Latvia was feeling kind of down, so when a meteorite crashed into a field one evening and an amateur video of its discovery went viral on the Internet, people were glad to have something other than their awful economy to talk about.
The Latvian masses gathered around the nation's only "Internetting box" to watch the video.
The crash site soon became a media circus: the press converged on it, civilians came to check it out (after paying money to the enterprising landowner) and the government sent a bunch of scientists and soldiers to make sure it wasn't radioactive or full of angry aliens. Everyone was very excited, at least until the sun rose and the scientists were able to get a clear look at the site, at which point they immediately called bullshit.
It was a fake crater, and not even a very good one. Responsibility was soon claimed by Tele2, a Swedish telecommunications company.
"If they can do this, imagine how awesome their cell reception must be!"
They claimed the stunt was designed to "draw attention away from Latvia's economic crisis and towards something else more interesting," which suggests that either they thought it was their job to be a cheerleader for another country, or that making the government waste a ton of money on investigating hoaxes was somehow going to draw attention away from budget problems.
"Don't worry about the fuel, just look at the beauty of the flames."
Not to mention that either they were arrogant enough to assume people wouldn't object to them manipulating headlines, or they had a very poor understanding of the phrase "making the news."
"Oil spills are really grabbing a lot of headlines. Let's do something with that."
They later clarified by saying that the hoax was part of an upcoming marketing campaign, and that "the message will become clear as soon as the concept is launched." It better have been a damn good concept, because they needed new customers after the Latvian government found a way to make up for all the money they wasted: They canceled their contracts with Tele2.