Is “Viral” Always Bad?

I spent last Saturday campaigning for a new District Attorney. I was with a small band of devoted followers, all chanting for change and justice in the form of Harvey Dent, a man pledged to clean up the streets. We carried signs, passed out placards and buttons, and were even filmed for the local media. We all screamed in unison: “I believe in Harvey Dent!”

It was a normal political rally in every respect except one: Harvey Dent is a fictional character. The city he’s vowing to “take back” is Gotham. Yes, that Gotham, the one presided over by Batman. Part of me was tinged with guilt that I marched for Dent while not doing anything proactive for the candidate I’m supporting for the real, live presidency. Also, in the comics Harvey Dent later becomes the villain Two Face, so I’m not even sure he’d be a particularly good D.A.

That didn’t stop any of us from taking part in the campaign rally this weekend. Some people we passed in the street, familiar with Batman lore, were really excited to see us and come up to us looking for Dent swag. (Others asked me questions about my preferred candidate as if he were real. That was mostly embarrassing.) Not only that, but if you took a photo with the “Dentmobile”—or even with your homemade Dent paraphernalia—and uploaded it on, you’d be sent a Gotham city registration card in the mail. (Assuming, of course, you live in one of Gotham’s 24 realistically rendered voting districts.)

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It was all viral marketing—but it was fun, too. (The Dark Knight opens July 18—get psyched!) Batman isn’t the only one getting into the act, either. Those who know the confusing complexities of Lost might remember the interactive web games that take place while the show is on summer hiatus. I’m not too familiar with them—the thought of being exposed to more half-explained freaky phenomena in the Lost universe makes my eyeballs roll back in my head a little—but I know that players call secret phone numbers, get passwords to clandestine websites, and watch video snippets that make the island seem all the more vast and mysterious.

Wired reports an even more involved campaign that took place before the release of Nine Inch Nails’ album Year Zero. The band’s leader, Trent Reznor, felt that the album had a back-story that couldn’t be communicated in an age of shrinking liner notes, so he enlisted a company to help him create an interactive game to dole out the story in pieces and get people excited about the album. Concertgoers found flash drives of new songs taped to bathroom stalls—and the song files had secret messages encoded on them that needed a spectrograph to be uncovered. Yes, the Nine Inch Nails team was actually confident enough to believe that, if fans were given access to a new song, one of them would be hardcore super-nerd enough to run it through a spectrograph. And they were right. The clue led to an unfolding plot similar to the Lost game: underground phone numbers, messages, and missives that made mention of a scary totalitarian state and a small group of resistance fighters. The experience culminated in a secret, free Nine Inch Nails concert for those who followed all the clues. To keep up the “reality” of the game, the concert was busted up by “government agents” when it was over.

So, what’s to be thought about all of this? In the past, “marketing” and “advertising” were almost dirty, icky words. You would avoid commercials as much as possible, and try and keep from “selling out” your integrity to big, corporate interests.

On the other hand, my Harvey Dent button is really, really cool. It’s proudly displayed in my cubicle right now—and I’m pretty sure you’re jealous. (If not, you should be.) When those big corporate interests are able to think creatively enough so that the advertising itself is its own entertainment, I don’t mind being a part of it. In other words, I believe in Harvey Dent!

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