Max Headroom for the 21st Century

Exciting, high-impact campaigns on the Web are still a thing of the present. Even if the work is done for free these days. Just ask Brilliant Digital president and chief executive officer Keven Bermeister. Animation and rich media veteran Bermeister, along with his team, are the creative force behind the latest Web campaign from Rock the Vote, the nonprofit organization devoted to youth voting activism.

The campaign, which tackles the timely subject of hate crimes in America, combines several of the hot concepts extant in digital marketing today. It’s a rich media endeavor that breeds advergaming with the celebrity spokesmanship model that has long been used in television, radio and print. Viral by design, the campaign will be distributed through email, traditional media buys, and special formats such as interactive windows that are opened from a banner.

The rich media tools behind the campaign have actually been around for a while. Until recently, Brilliant Digital had used its b3d software mainly on animated interactive shorts that feature characters and music artists such as Ja Rule, Xena, KISS and Ace Ventura. That content has been distributed via Web syndication to partners Yahoo, Warner Bros. Online, MTV.com, Road Runner and VH1.com. The entertainment uses for the technology were clear from the beginning, but Bermeister was eager to showcase the advertising potential of the bd3 suite. So he started casting about for a worthy pro bono client.

Giving it Away, Grabbing Attention

In April 2001, Bermeister approached Mario Velasquez, Rock the Vote’s executive director, about doing a pro bono campaign. Rock the Vote relies on donations of money and media to get its message out, and Velasquez and his staff formed the Rock the Vote action group to coordinate the process.

“It’s an open forum for companies to make contributions to Rock the Vote,” said Velasquez. Firms that have previously offered pro bono services to the cause include TBWAChiatDay and DNA Studios.

Donating work and media space is more than just a way for big players to practice philanthropy. As times get leaner, lesser-known agencies are increasingly choosing this avenue as a means to draw attention to their creative work. Such was the case with Brilliant Digital.

Bermeister saw Rock the Vote’s youth audience and its connections with the music industry as an ideal vehicle for his firm’s b3d technology — and a good cause as well. He demonstrated bd3 for Velasquez, showing how the tools could render a human form in three dimensions and then animate it with sounds. Velasquez was excited by the prospect of using a gaming-style interface and viral marketing strategy to engage young people on political issues.

“It came about organically, the way good relationships tend to begin,” said Bermeister of his early meetings with Velasquez. “We felt that our focus on advertising and animation would enable Mario to both create political messages and engage people. We each had relationships in the music industry, and it seemed the natural place to go.”

“He showed me the heads, and I immediately understood the power of the message,” said Velasquez. “Brilliant Digital is basically bringing Max Headroom to the digital age.”

Morphing With Each Generation

Engaging youth over the long term isn’t easy. Rock the Vote was founded in 1990 with the purpose of getting young people involved in the political process — and doing it with music. Therefore, the organization faces the constant challenge of matching its messages with teens’ rapidly-changing musical tastes and styles of expression. This is an audience that can be lost almost overnight, an effect that the Web has only amplified. No suprise then, that Velasquez was looking for a big change from previous campaigns.

“It seemed that Mario was trying to reach out from what they had been doing,” said Bermeister. “The organization has been around for 11 years. Mario was eager to get out there and really connect with people on the Web.”

It would not be Rock the Vote’s first experiments in digital marketing, however. The organization’s Web endeavors extend all the way back to 1996, when it became the first nonprofit to offer online voter registration. “We wanted to make it fun, accessible and easy — not bureaucratic or intimidating,” Velasquez said.

Then, in 2000, Rock the Vote unleashed the controversial “Yes/No” campaign, developed by San Fransisco design house Collaborate. The Flash interface used shocking images combined with a question and answer format to engage people on issues such as abortion, gun control, and capital punishment. Metrics for that effort showed approximately 22 million downloads and an almost-unheard-of 35 percent click-through rate.

Velasquez is always on the lookout for ways to reach teens and twenty-somethings on the Web.

“When you think about it, it’s a more informative, more effective, and more engaging way to communicate,” he said. “With a computer, kids are more fully engaged than with TV”

Interfacing With 3d Celebs

The new campaign, which launched six weeks ago and is about one fifth complete, uses Brilliant Digital’s b3d technology to build digitized versions of rock, hip-hop and rap artists’ heads. When the email or URL is opened, the head speaks in the artist’s own voice — providing information about hate crimes and asking questions about the user’s own views on a variety of issues.

“I just spent about two hours hanging out at MTV’s Fight for Your Rights site,” says the disembodied digital head of rapper Sisqo in one of the campaign’s early spots, hinting that his fans might want to do the same. Sisqo goes on to talk about his views on hate crimes and to encourage people to make their voices heard.

One of the great things about the design process is that it places a very low demand on celebrities’ time. This is one of the main reasons that the campaign has been able to secure such a wide variety of recording stars, including rocker Moby and platinum rapper Outkast.

“We like the technology because it makes it so easy for artists to participate,” said Velasquez. “They do the recording and make these heads, which we send as viral marketing around the Net.”

Here’s how it works. Brilliant Digital sends a team to take digital photos of the artist. They then model the heads using b3d and give life to those heads. Once the artist approves the animation and the script, Brilliant Digital sends a sound team to record the voice part. From there it’s an easy step to sync the sound file with the lips and all the graphics that go around it.

The ads don’t merely talk to users — they invite their involvement. In his spot, Sisqo asks users whether they think anything can be done about hate crimes. What he says next depends on whether the viewer selects “yes” or “no” in response to his question. “What, are you a fool?” he demands of the pessimistic surfer. “There’s a lot we can do to fight for people’s rights.” After hearing the introduction, viewers can select from a variety of topics represented by text links in a table below the rapper’s head, and Sisqo will talk about them.

You can also interact visually with the ad, rotating the artist’s head with click and drag motions, further enhancing the 3D experience. While it’s hard to categorize the campaign, the current buzz about advergaming inevitably comes to mind. Every user determines the direction and the outcome of the animation, interacting with both its visual and conceptual elements. It’s not exactly Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater, but it’s no banner ad either.

Results

It’s too early to draw final conclusions on the effectiveness of the campaign, but the early numbers look good. Banner click-through rates on the Sisqo spot are at 10 percent so far. Of those who view the ad, 30 percent are participating in one way or another with its interactive features — especially the Sign Petition (6.6 percent), Register to Vote (4.6 percent), and E-Mail a Friend (4.6 percent) options. The campaign is doing what it’s supposed to do. It’s getting young people personally involved in the issues.

Of course, the key to the Rock the Vote campaign’s success has more to do with the force of celebrity than with advergaming or the viral marketing model. The latter just happen to be an ideal marketing vehicle for the substance of the campaign — the stars whose political views are important to young people. When kids and young adults can go on the Web and learn what issues their favorite musicians care about in the musicians’ own words, they’re much more likely to participate. The new Brilliant Digital/Rock the Vote rich media campaign is making that happen.

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