Beyond Viral Ads

Recently, game publisher Capcom Europe was forced to ‘fess up after a virus it created to promote a new game, “Resident Evil Outbreak,” got a bit out of control and spread faster than anticipated. Dubbed the “T-Virus,” after a virus in the game that turns humans into flesh-eating zombies, the mobile phone virus was spread by email and SMS across Europe by virus recipients. People who forwarded the virus competed to win prizes by spreading the code to as many friends as possible.

Fortunately for Capcom and virus recipients, all the virus does is leave a groaning zombie ring tone on infected phones. Infected phones can be “cured” by sending a text message to the game publisher. Capcom is being forced to publicly come clean about the problematic publicity stunt.

On Gameplanet, Ben Le Rougetel, senior PR manager and chief virologist for CE Europe, laid it on the line:

We had to come clean about the T-Virus eventually. The T-Virus was originally designed to promote the release of “Resident Evil Outbreak” for [PlayStation 2], but it’s spread much quicker than we originally anticipated. It’s now totally out of control and we’re not totally sure how to stop it.

Yeah, right. In reality, mobile T-Virus’s behavior (and Capcom’s reaction to it) bears a stunning resemblance to the game’s virus. The “confession” voiced by Le Rougetel sounds remarkably like the in-game pronouncements from the evil “Umbrella Corporation,” creators of the virus in the game. It’s either an uncanny coincidence or one of the slickest PR moves in years. I tend to believe the latter, but with major reservations.

In a way, the whole campaign is a remarkable closed-loop marketing effort. Promoting a game about a zombie virus by actually creating a virus spread by fan “contact” is a pretty slick idea. It does a remarkable job of crossing the blood/brain barrier between marketing and real life. In many respects, the effort echoes what EA did in 2001 with its “Majestic” game. In it, players were immersed in a fictitious conspiracy that communicated with them by phone, fax, email, and IM. The game was cancelled after September 11 amid fears the communiqués were a little too true to life.

PR stunt aside, Capcom’s effort actually illustrates how “going digital” has begun to blur many traditional boundaries between media and public/private conversation that many of us still take for granted. Today, as all media become digital and converge, and boundaries between separate channels begin to blur, too. Campaigns such as Capcom’s are both a clear warning of heavy-handed marketing’s unintended consequences and a glimpse of a possible future.

In his 2000 book, “When Things Start to Think,” MIT professor Neil Gershenfeld examines the consequences of what will happen when “the barrier between the bits of the digital world and the atoms of our physical world” begin to converge. As marketers, you owe it to yourselves to read Gershenfeld’s book. Why? Like it or not, that’s where we’re heading. The T-Virus is just the beginning.

Today, the Internet has moved beyond being a way to browse for information on the Web or communicate with others. The Net’s real power is it provides a ubiquitous communications channel that can be adapted to fit into nearly every nook and cranny of our lives.

Aside from certain highly secure military and intelligence networks that are purposely disconnected from the Internet, few places in the world and few networked digital devices aren’t connected to the grid in some way. All forms of electronic media: TV, radio, the Web, and mobile networks, are beginning to converge. You could argue print has bridged the gap by providing offline communication frequently supplemented by additional Web content.

Media will converge. Make no mistake about it. As marketers, we must learn to deal with this new reality by being a lot more creative and thoughtful about how we communicate across multiple modes. Thinking of separate media as “channels” is counterproductive. The Capcom example illustrates that.

Reaching increasingly networked audiences that flit back and forth between various communications modes requires creative, strategic thinking at levels none of us are used to yet. We must consider not just how things look and what they do but also how to strategically decide what manifestations our messages must take to be the most effective and to communicate the big idea.

What I fear most (a fear bolstered by the “out of control” comments from Capcom) is no one understands how all this stuff really works together. Frighteningly, there’s a program in which students train to work in this new world, but precious little industry education considers how all these communication modes work together.

We’ve got a lot of learning to do.

When viral “ads” start to think, move around by themselves, and ostensibly get out of control, you know we’re entering a really interesting new world. Whether we’ll look back in horror or amusement at Capcom’s T-Virus campaign five years from now is debatable. Yet it’s worth examining now to glimpse the challenges (and promise) ahead.

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