Tag: marketing

Mr. Robot’s Multifaceted Marketing Experience at New York Comic Con

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Fsociety Brings an Alternate Reality Game to the Party

USA Network’s Mr. Robot brought a series of interactive marketing experiences to New York Comic Con earlier this month. Like the show’s presence at last summer’s San Diego Comic-Con, the events provided a multilayered experience that combined conspicuous activities with a hidden alternate reality game (ARG) for those who were able to follow the clues. [See: “The Multilayered Mr. Robot Marketing Experience.”] The activities at New York, however, added an additional wrinkle. Whereas San Diego presented a single secret path for players to follow, the New York experience was multi-threaded, providing multiple parallel paths of varying depths for players to explore. At the conclusion of the main event, all the attendees were brought together for a group capstone experience.

Although there was no panel session for Mr. Robot at New York Comic Con this year, elements of the TV series appeared in multiple locations in and near the Javits Center. The program’s fictional narrative blended with the real world through three elements: Bank of E sign-up opportunities, the Red Wheelbarrow BBQ truck, and — most notably — the Ecoin launch party.

Bank of E

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Bank of E at the Javits Center.

The only official Mr. Robot presence at New York Comic Con was a desk at the Javits Center where people could sign up for an account with the show’s fictional Bank of E. In San Diego, new Bank of E customers  received a Bank of E card loaded with 20 Ecoin, the show’s fictional cryptocurrency, that could be used to buy items all around the city’s Gaslamp Quarter. At New York Comic Con, signing up for an account merely rewarded fans a few tchotchkes, such as Bank of E branded sunglasses and a key ring.

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Signing up for a Bank of E account.

There are, however, ongoing perks for Bank of E customers. Since New York Comic Con, Bank of E members have been offered a free Ecoin Power Bank and an Amazon Echo Dot. During New York Comic Con, members could also grab a free lunch at a Red Wheelbarrow BBQ food truck.

Red Wheelbarrow BBQ

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Lunch at the Red Wheelbarrow BBQ.

At San Diego Comic-Con, the Mr. Robot activation (as these marketing events are termed) included a full reconstruction of the Red Wheelbarrow BBQ, the eatery that plays a role in season 3 of the series. At New York, in contrast, a Red Wheelbarrow food truck was available at a different location each day. Bank of E members could enjoy a complimentary lunch of pulled pork (supplied by Starr Catering), chips, and water. Folks who weren’t Bank of E customers could sign up on the spot.

Ecoin Launch Party

The centerpiece of the Mr. Robot Experience at NYCC was the launch party for Ecoin. Due to all the concurrent activities taking place, many of which were hidden, it’s difficult to fully document the experience. This account is based on my own experience and information gleaned from other accounts (most notably the excellent write up at GameDetectives.net, along with additional accounts from TV Guide, MTV, and Nerdophiles.)

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Outside the venue at Terminal 5.

From any vantage point, the launch party — developed by USA Networks along with BBQ Films and Civic Entertainment Group — was an impressive event.

Although Ecoin was prominently featured at San Diego Comic-Con, in the show’s extended real-world narrative, that was merely a pilot project. The official launch of the cryptocurrency took place at New York Comic Con.

Invitations to the event went out over Twitter and elsewhere. Fans who responded quickly received a confirmation message. (More on this RSVP response later.)

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Checking in beneath the illuminated E.

The entrance to the venue at New York’s Terminal 5 was arrayed with Bank of E signs and banners. A large E Corp logo was projected in light on an adjacent building.

After checking in, party guests received a badge with the Ecoin logo and slogan: “A new currency for a new era.” The badge was marked “BACKSTAGE,” implying you would have access to more than the events occurring in plain sight at the party. And, indeed, many attendees participated in activities behind the scenes.

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The champagne flows.

Upon entering the building, guests were met by servers offering flutes of champagne. E Corp advertising was prevalent throughout.

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Artwork honoring E Corp.

An artist was putting the final touches on a large painting of E Corp’s dominance of the Manhattan skyline. A small side stage was set up for the live broadcast of the event.

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Above the atrium: a large E.

The venue’s main space was a soaring three-story atrium. At its pinnacle, a large letter E was suspended.

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E Corp SVP of Marketing Debra Heller.

On the main stage, an actor portraying Debra Heller, E Corp Senior Vice President of Marketing, welcomed the crowd and introduced the band, the Keystrokes, fronted by vocalist Robyn Adele Anderson.

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Robyn Adele Anderson sings.

Hors d’oeuvre were served and drinks flowed leading up to the keynote presentation by E Corp CEO Phillip Price.

More Than Meets the Eye: Behind the Scenes

While these celebrations were underway, covert activities were taking place at various locations throughout the venue.

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RSVP response. [Click to view.]
Confederates for some of these endeavors were recruited before the night of the event.

Observant fans noted something intriguing about the RSVP notification they received: some of the bubbles above the champagne flutes were more prominent than the others. Beneath the phrase CELEBRATE IN STYLE WHILE YOUR SENSES WE BEGUILE! these larger bubbles appeared under the letters BITLYSEWGI. This implied a bit.ly url: http://bit.ly/sewgi

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“Silent Sin.”

Following this link sent you to an RSVP page for the event. (Subsequent to New York Comic Con, the link redirected to the Bank of E’s Ecoin site.) At the bottom of the page was an image with celebratory confetti and ribbons. The central set of ribbons were variations of the letters SILENT SIN.

Entering “Silent Sin” on the RSVP page returned the message:

Congratulations, your eyes have been opened and we now call on you to join our resistance. On October 5th, while EvilCorp is blinded by its own opulence, we will seize control of this Ecoin bacchanal and embarrass them on a global stage. These bourgeois oppressors have fashioned themselves a golden throne and placed the legs squarely on our backs. Together,we will rise up and burn that throne to the ground. Stand with us as we fight for a new tomorrow.

If, and only if, you will be attending the Ecoin Launch Party in person, leave us your email below and you will be contacted by one of our operatives with your directive soon. You must enter the same email used to RSVP to the Ecoin Launch Party. Do not share this page or this message.

People who submitted their email address received the message:

the war wages on.

the sins of evil corp must be
exposed. fsociety needs you at
the Ecoin Launch Event.

terminal 5 (605 West 55th
Street between 11th and 12th)
6:15pm

ask for benny the bus driver
outside the service entrance.
come alone. wear black pants
and a white-long sleeve dress
shirt.

the revolution won’t go down without a fight.

we are fsociety.

Other clues were distributed over Twitter before the event to selected fans who had tweeted using the #wearefsociety hashtag, advising them to “Go to the champagne station and find Charles. Tell him, ‘I am the 99%.'” or “Go to the serving station on Floor 2 and ask for the Chef. Tell her ‘I am a one, not a zero.'”

Some collaborators were recruited through a Twitter Direct Message:

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The mysterious white bus.

Parked beside the rear entrance to the venue on the night of the event was a white school bus with the windows covered with newspaper where a group of invited confederates assembled.

Inside the bus, participants were given cloth Ecoin swag bags containing an fsociety mask and were assigned secret missions.

Some of this group were appointed to sneak into the green room for E Corp CEO Phillip Price and hack his presentation. Others were disguised as waiters and waitresses to mingle with the crowd and distribute clues to other attendees.

Some bags contained notes for different assignments, such as:

we are about to reveal
the sins of evil corp.
blend in. be ready.
before 8:15 find alex
with the white rose
on the 1 st floor.
password:
“are you seeing this, too?”

As the party was underway, the secret missions began.

Joining Fsociety

A number of participants — both those inside the bus and elsewhere at the party — were given a card with a Snapchat Snapcode. Scanning the Snapcode led to the web address:

http://fsociety00.dat.sh/v/CDWNoGOMQSCKeArcAxZk/

Mr-Robot-Mission-Video-FsocietyThat site displayed a brief video that intercuts shots of a hoodie-wearing member of fsociety with a sequence of messages:

HELLO, FRIEND.
WE HAVE A MISSION FOR YOU.

GO TO THE STAIRWALL BEHIND THE BAR.

The final screen shows the fsociety mask with the following message:
Mr-Robot-Mission-Video-Screen-Shot

1. ASK FOR JESSIE

2. SHOW THEM A
SCREEN SHOT OF
THIS MESSAGE

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Down the dimly lit corridor.

Once Jessie was located and shown the image from the video, some people reportedly received a 5/9 button. Others, like the group I was with, were further interrogated about our actions that evening and were then led down a series of dimly lit corridors.

During this journey, other groups were being led through the hallways to different locations, indicating that different missions (such as, perhaps, the green room hack) were simultaneously underway.

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Showing allegience: “I am fsociety.”

In my case, the group of three of us were eventually escorted into a small room illuminated with an orange light. There each of us was told to don the full costume of fsociety’s iconic figure — mask, gloves, top hat, jacket, and cane. One by one we then sat in front of a mirror to record our message of allegiance to fsociety. Speaking through the voice-altering microphone, we read from the prepared text on the sign in front of us:

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I AM FSOCIETY.
WE ARE FSOCIETY.
TOGETHER WE CAN
BUILD A NEW WORLD
WHERE WE ARE
FINALLY FREE.

After removing the costume, we left the room and returned to the party.

This was but one of several sequences of similar activities taking place.

Some people were handed a small fsociety 5/9 flag and told to keep it until the right time. Others received stickers advising them to go to the coat check room and say to the person there, “Are you seeing this, too?” Those who did were handed the cloth bag with the Ecoin logo containing an fsociety mask with, at least in some cases, a note attached. My note said:

keep me hidden
find the bathrooms
on the 3rd fl
for further instructions.
say “hello friend” to frankie.

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Frankie questions potential recruits.

Once Frankie was located and the pass phrase given, individuals were led to another corridor facing a row of doors to small bathrooms lit with either a blue or orange light.

Inside each room, as before, was the attire of the fsociety figure with instructions on the wall to take a photo and post it to social platforms with the #Wearefsociety hashtag:

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“Are you with us?”

THE REVOLUTION WON’T
GO DOWN WITHOUT A FIGHT.
ARE YOU WITH US?

Put on your mask
Choose your disguise

Turn your flash off

Capture evidence of your
allegiance for the world to see

Use #WeArefsociety

Leave the costume
Take your mask but keep it under wraps
You’ll need it later

E-Coin-Launch-Hidden-Mask-NYCC-2017-photo-by-Kendall-Whitehouse-400x600
“Keep me hidden.”

Other bags containing an fsociety mask included different messages. One newfound friend at the party showed me his mask which included the message:

keep me hidden.
show your allegiance
to the rebellion.
look for an out of the
way corner.
put me on.
take a picture
share that picture
with the world.
#wearefsociety

The Capstone Event: E Corp Hacked and Fsociety Triumphant

Meanwhile, in the main hall, the party continued. As the band finished the set with a rendition of Daft Punk’s Get Lucky, E Corp Marketing SVP Heller returned to the stage to introduce the evening’s keynote speaker: E Corp CEO Phillip Price.

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E Corp CEO Phillip Price (Michael Cristofer.)

After the audience was seated, staff members made sure participants who had not previously followed the clues to receive an fsociety mask were given a bag containing the mask.

After showing a promotional E Corp video, CEO Price (actor Michael Cristofer) came to the stage.

Declaring that we live in “dark times” where “dangerous anarchists” are out to destroy the world, Price then assured the audience, “with the right leadership, order and stability will be restored,” touting Ecoin as the new currency to “unite the world.”

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Fsociety takes over.

During his speech, the screen started to glitch. The E Corp logo flickered. As Price continued, the glitching got more severe. The on-screen E Corp logo was then replaced by the fsociety mask. A pair of security agents safely whisked Price off the stage.

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The fsociety band.

One by one, band members returned to the stage, each wearing an fsociety mask.

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Everyone is fsociety.

By this time, everyone in the audience had donned their fsociety masks.

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“We are fsociety.”

The band members lined up on stage and led the crowd in chants of “We are fsociety and we are finally free.”

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The E descends.

The giant illuminated E that had been hanging over the atrium was slowly lowed and carted away.

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Fsociety banners unfurl.

Fsociety banners and sheets filled with graffiti were unfurled from the upper floors of the hall.

A message appeared on the screen:E-Coin-Launch-Video-Attention-NYCC-2017-photo-by-Kendall-Whitehouse-600x400

ATTENTION: WHAT YOU ARE ABOUT TO SEE  MUST NOT BE SHARED WITH THE WORLD UNTIL THE TIME IS RIGHT.

Clips from Mr. Robot appeared on screen. The audience was then surprised with an unannounced screening of the opening episode of season 3, not scheduled to air until the following week.

When the episode concluded, E Corp’s Heller returned to the stage flanked by a security agent. She apologized for the incident and announced the end of the party.

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Fsociety posters everywhere.

As people exited the hall, fsociety posters and graffiti covered the corridor.

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The painting vandalized

The large E Corp painting had been vandalized with fsociety graffiti.

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Protesters occupy the street outside the venue.

Outside the venue, masked fsociety members were protesting and distributing REMEMBER FIVE/NINE stickers. The large E previously projected on the adjacent building had been replaced by the fsociety logo.

By providing various concurrent levels of experience during the four-hour event, each participant felt they had a singular experience. Hardcore fans who cracked the online clues received an invitation to serve in a key role in the experience. Others uncovered clues on site that led them to other secretive missions. And all attendees joined together for the event’s final act.

It was a massively coordinated immersive marketing experience and alternate reality game that blended the TV show’s fictional narrative with the real world and let everyone play a role.

For a photo gallery of the Mr. Robot events at New York Comic Con, see: Mr. Robot Experience: New York Comic Con 2017

 

 


The images from the Mr. Robot video and websites are from potentially copyrighted content, the copyright for which is most likely owned by the program’s production company and/or distributor and possibly also by any actors appearing in the image. It is believed that the use of a web-resolution screenshot for identification and critical commentary on the film and its contents qualifies as fair use under United States copyright law. All other photos on this page are copyright © 2017 Kendall Whitehouse.

The Westworld Experience at New York Comic Con

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Which Hat Will You Wear?

At last year’s New York Comic Con, the HBO Westworld offsite marketing event (known as an “activation” in the industry) consisted of a hybrid physical/virtual experience. [See: “Entering Westworld: VR Marketing at New York Comic Con.”] Visitors who scored one of the coveted appointments entered a reconstruction of the offices of the fictional Delos corporation, where an actor portraying one of the show’s synthetic human hosts greeted you. You were then led into a room to don an HTC Vive VR headset and enter a virtual simulation of Westworld.

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The secret location of the New York offices of Delos.

According to Steve Coulson, a Partner at Campfire who worked with HBO to develop this year’s activation, people who went through the 2016 experience were particularly excited about interacting with the live actors in the physical environment. When planning for this year, HBO and Campfire decided to forego the virtual in favor the actual. This follows a recent trend favoring real-world experiences over virtual simulations in these large scale marketing experiences. [See: “Marketing at Comic-Con Gets Real (Again)“] This updated version of Westworld: The Experience debuted at Comic-Con International’s San Diego event over the summer and came to ReedPop’s New York Comic Con earlier this month.

As at San Diego, it was an exclusive event. The experience accommodated only six people at a time for each 30-minute appointment. The activation was open for ten hours a day, allowing only 120 guests to visit Westworld each of the four days of the convention.

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Online clues for that day’s location to sign up for the experience.

The location to sign up for an appointment changed each day, with clues hinting at the spot appearing in tweets each morning.

The lucky few who obtained a slot were told the location of the installation, several blocks from the convention’s home at the Javits Center.

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Your host greets you upon entering the Delos offices.

Upon entering, guests are greeted by an actor portraying a synthetic human host. You and your five companions are then led into a room displaying weapons and clothing from the show. A wall-sized video screen provides a visual introduction to Westworld.

One-by-one you’re called for your interview. You enter a sparse, dimly lit room where your interrogator greets you. Two hats hang on the wall: one white, one black. Which will you be given?

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Which hat will your interrogator select for you?

The comprehensive interview includes a raft of questions. Some are focused on your psychology, such as: “What percentage of your dreams are nightmares?”

Others are moral conundrums, akin to the Trolley Problem:

“If someone invented a device that would bring happiness to everyone in the world, but would also eliminate half the population, would you: (1) use it or (2) destroy the device and its creator?”

“A band of criminals comes into a bar and shoots everyone. You have a gun. Do you: (1) kill them, (2) join them, or (3) do nothing?”

The interrogation is oddly effective. If you answer the questions honestly, you inevitably begin to think about which hat you’re likely to receive. Are you, truly, a white hat person or a black hat person?

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Heads made from life castings.

Once you’ve been given your hat, you’re led into a narrow room displaying eerie life-mask heads.

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The door you do not enter: Samurai World?

As you move through the corridors of the Westworld Experience, there are details worth noting. One door — through which you do not go — is identified by a circular SW logo. Samurai World, perhaps?

From there you enter an elevator and ascend to the centerpiece of the experience: the Mariposa Saloon.

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Preparing a Blue Blazer.

The saloon, dimly lit in a soft yellow light, is a small but credible reconstruction of the establishment seen in the HBO series. The show’s iconic player piano is positioned on a wall opposite the bar. Working behind the bar are two bartenders — one male, one female — who prepare you a series of three drinks. And, yes, they are real drinks. A post by Michael Leventhal on Hi-Def Ninja includes the recipe for each of the three rounds. The flaming Blue Blazer is particularly striking to see being prepared.

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A host at the Mariposa.

As you enjoy your beverage, women portraying hosts working in the bar alluringly converse with you.

Even though we entered as a group of six, after being interviewed and escorted to the Mariposa, I realized there were only three of us in attendance. By carefully timing the introductory segments — the initial exhibits and the interview — the experience moves the initial group of six through the saloon in two cohorts, making for a very intimate experience.

Other groups that attended the experience reported that it ended with a flurry of drama. An alarm sounds, guests are told there is a problem with the system, and the hosts show signs of glitching. Attendees are then briskly escorted to the elevators to escape. Alas, when I was there, the experience ended more sedately, with the hosts simply telling us it was time to leave.

One final note: The hat. You get to keep the cowboy hat you were assigned, which I knew going into the experience. I had assumed, however, that it would be an inexpensive costume hat. It’s not. It’s a high quality hat made by Serratelli, a company that traces its roots back to 1878 and has been manufacturing Western hats since 1997. This unexpected bit of quality is emblematic of the attention to detail of the entire Westworld Experience, and is a prime example of how to recruit brand advocates by delighting fans.

For a photo gallery from the event, see: Westworld Experience: New York Comic Con 2017

The Multilayered Mr. Robot Marketing Experience

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Mr. Robot’s Alternate Reality Game at San Diego Comic-Con

At San Diego Comic-Con last year, the offsite marketing event for USA Network’s Mr. Robot cleverly blended a physical environment with a virtual reality experience. This year, Mr. Robot eschewed the virtual in favor of physical constructions and encounters with live actors. Some aspects of the experience were clearly visible. Other elements were revealed only to fans who participated in a complex alternate reality game (ARG) to solve clues scattered around downtown San Diego.

Clearly Visible: The Bank of E and the Red Wheelbarrow BBQ

While the climax of the experience was cleverly hidden, much of this year’s Mr. Robot activation (as these marketing events are termed) was apparent to anyone strolling around San Diego’s Gaslamp Quarter.

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The condemned Mr. Robot Repair Shop. Note the small white chicken, upper right.

On Fourth Ave, a short distance from the Convention Center, fans could see the storefront of the Mr. Robot Repair Shop. Last year, the shop was the entrance to an elaborate reconstruction of the fictional retail establishment from the TV show, complete with old mid-1990s computers. Moving down a hallway, fans then entered a recreation of the apartment of Elliot Alderson, the show’s protagonist. From there, participants donned VR headsets and entered a 13-minute virtual reality experience written and directed by showrunner Sam Esmail. [For more on the 2016 marketing experience, see: “The Mr. Robot VR Experience, Storytelling, and the Future of Immersive Media

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Mr. Robot Repair Shop Notice to Vacate.

This year, the repair shop was abandoned. The closed storefront displayed a condemned sign and a notice for eviction. An ad for the E Corp Online, the AOL-like online service of the show’s mega-conglomerate E Corp, could also be spotted. (More on this ad later.) Graffiti was splattered over much of the storefront.

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The Bank of E.

Next door, the Bank of E had a small branch office where fans could sign up for an account from the fictional bank and receive a charge card loaded with 20 Ecoin, the Bank of E’s cryptocurrency. People could also sign up online on the Bank’s website, e-coin.com. While the bank may be fictional, Ecoin worked as an effective pseudo-currency throughout much of the Gaslamp during Comic-Con. Signs declaring “Ecoin Accepted Here,” where fans could use their newly-acquired Ecoin card to purchase souvenirs and snacks, were scattered around downtown San Diego.

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The Red Wheelbarrow BBQ.

Next door to the Bank of E was the Red Wheelbarrow BBQ, where Bank of E customers could receive a complimentary pulled pork sandwich (supplied by local favorite Phil’s BBQ) along with chips and a shake.

While the Red Wheelbarrow BBQ appears only obliquely in the previous season of the show — appearing briefly as a takeout menu in one episode — it will reportedly play a larger role in the upcoming third season.

These physical recreations of locations from the show allowed many fans at Comic-Con to enter the world of Mr. Robot. There was, however, a mystery hiding in plain sight.

Following the Clues

While many people were blithely enjoying lunch at the Red Wheelbarrow BBQ, observant fans noticed clues to something deeper behind the Mr. Robot activation. [For many of the details in this section, I’m indebted to the redditors in the /r/MrRobot/ and r/ARGsociety/ subreddits, particularly B-Cipher, Cornelius55555555, and britter2]

At the Bank of E, a video screen running promotional ads for the bank would occasionally glitch and display a black screen with red lettering saying:

SOMETIMES TO SEE CLEARLY, YOU MUST CLOSE YOUR EYES.
ISE IARI CHI EIVE RIY WIH IERE

Removing the Is and unnecessary spaces, gives: SEARCH EVERYWHERE

Some of the Ecoin Accepted Here signs included the following text at the bottom:

Use Ecoin to unlock the mysteries of the universe!
Don’t wait… EVERY SECOND COUNTS!!
EUNSLEIPGRHOTMEONCMOEDNET

The gibberish at the bottom is an anagram for:

USE PROMO CODE ENLIGHTENMENT

Entering ENLIGHTENMENT as a promo code on the Ecoin website showed a black screen with white text that read:

so, you decided to bank with e corp.

good.

you’re on your way.

but first…

you need a job.

ask an employee at red wheelbarrow if they’re hiring

hope to hear back from you soon.

When asked, staff at the Red Wheelbarrow would hand out a job application form to prospective hires. Applicants were told to be observant and look around both inside and outside the Red Wheelbarrow. Staff also pointed out the application number at the top right of the form: 619. This is the area code for San Diego.

A number of letters were missing from words in the application form. Listing the missing letters gives: “find and assemble the pieces enlightenment calls.”

At the top left of the application, above the Red Wheelbarrow logo, were three circles, the first of which was filled with the other two empty.

On a chalkboard at the Red Wheelbarrow BBQ was written the William Carlos Williams poem from which the establishment takes its name:

So much depends upon

a red wheelbarrow

glazed with rain water

beside the white chickens

– William Carlos Williams

Underneath was a speech balloon saying “follow us!” above one of a pair of stickers of white chickens.

A white chicken sticker could also be seen on the closed Mr. Robot Repair Shop.

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Clues hidden in the E Corp Online ad.

Looking closely at the shop’s E Corp Online ad revealed additional clues. At the upper left, three circles could again be seen. In this case, the middle circle was filled with the two outside circles empty.

The first sentence of the text read: “A world of  enlightenment is just a click away with E Corp Online!,” with the bold “enlightenment” harking back to the earlier clues.

Elsewhere in the text, a number of words, representing numbers, were in all caps:

The World Wide Web is what’s happening now, and EOL brings it right to your computers. Sports, Shopping, Travel and more… over FOUR categories of content all at your fingertips.

And thanks to E Corp’s cutting edge technology, connecting with the people and things that you love has never been easier. Our new high connection speeds will have you online in less then THREE minutes!

BONUS: Order now, and receive ONE free hour to check out E Corp Online!

This text thus adds to 619 three numbers: 431.

White chicken stickers led down 4th Avenue and across the street. An abandoned building displayed a street art poster with four marionettes on strings. In the upper left were three circles, with the first two empty and the final circle filled.

The text of the poster one day read:

If you pull the right strings,
a puppet will dance any way you desire.

The work was signed “Enlightenment.”

Another day, the poster read:

The real you is not a puppet
which life pushes around.
The real, deep down you
is the whole universe.

A representative from Civic Entertainment Group involved in the production of the activation explained that since the text was key to entering the final stage of the experience, the poster was changed each day to reduce instances of sharing the text with people who had not solved the earlier puzzles.

In one hand, each of the figures was holding an object: a noose, a white rose, a cell phone, and a knife. With the other hand, each of the marionettes displayed a number of fingers. In order they were: 2454

Putting together the three sets of numbers gives a San Diego phone number.

A number of people reportedly had problems calling the number, receiving a busy signal or a recording telling them to call back tomorrow.

When the call was completed, the person on the other end said, “If you pull the right strings…” A wrong response would be answered with “Your journey is not complete. Follow the chickens.” If the caller answered correctly with the correct response for that that, such as “A puppet will dance any way you desire,” they were congratulated on following the correct path, asked their name, and given the time and location at which to appear. (In some accounts, they were told they could bring one friend.)

At the appointed time and place, the participant was met by someone who asked their name and led them to a doorway for the final segment of the experience.

The End of the Journey

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The secret door opens.

It turned out the entrance to the final chapter of the Mr. Robot Experience was located next to the Red Wheelbarrow BBQ. A glass doorway was covered with newspapers which, in a clever bit of misdirection, appeared to be more relevant to Superman than to Mr. Robot. A Daily Planet newspaper placed in multiple locations on the door trumpeted the headline “Mysterious Crisis Strikes City!” and discussed shocking developments in Superman’s home town of Metropolis.

The newspaper included a crossword puzzle with odd clues:

Across Down
Put First
Things First
Don’t Be
Afraid Switch
Things Up

Although I didn’t see this when I was there, apparently at one point the crossword puzzle on one of the pages was filled in with a series of backward and forward words:

Across:
EHT
TIGHR
OT
THAT
KNLOCU
DEHINDB
DINF

Down:
TNLIGHTENMENE
ROOD
RUMBEN

Unscrambling and rearranging these gives: “Find The Right Number to Unlock Enlightenment Behind That Door.”

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Past the secret door, down the hallway.

The door led to a dimly lit hallway with graffiti on the walls. A woman in a hoody was standing midway down the corridor. I was told I needed to turn over my cellphone before proceeding. I objected. As a compromise, I turned off my phone and promised to keep it in my pocket.

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Angela enters an interrogation room nearly identical to the one at Comic-Con.

The door at the end of the hall led to a darkened room — one that looks virtually identical to the interrogation room encountered by Angela (Portia Doubleday) in the penultimate episode in season 2 of Mr. Robot (titled “eps2.9_pyth0n-pt1.p7z”).

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As in the TV episode (shown), the room at Comic-Con held a Commodore 64 computer and a red phone.

As in the show, the room contained a dimly lit table on which sat an ancient Commodore 64 computer along with a few 5-1/4-inch diskettes. Also on the table was a red telephone. The only other object in the room was an illuminated fish tank, whose glow provided ambient light in the room.

While the physical environment closely matched the room seen in the show, there was one striking difference: While Angela was interrogated by a young blonde girl — looking much like the Angela would have looked at that age — in the room at Comic-Con, you were facing a person wearing the mask of the ominous Dark Army.

After being directed to sit down, the questions began.

“How many times have you lied today?”

“Animal, vegetable, or mineral?”

The series of questions apparently varied somewhat. One account reported being asked “At what age did you realize you are alone?”

The final question was:

“Are you afraid of the dark?”

At that point, the masked figure slid forward a mechanical light switch. When switched on, the lights went off and the room turned . A black UV light revealed graffiti scrolled on the back wall that included the phrase, “What do all those in darkness seek?”

To avoid the obvious I initially answered, “Truth.” The masked figure shook his head. I then responded, “Light.”

At that point, the black light switched off and the dim room lighting returned.

One account reported that the fish tank began to slowly drain, echoing what happens during the similar sequence in show. When I spoke with one of the developers of the activation, he told me the original plan was to drain the tank, but it was taking too long to refill between sessions, so this was dropped.

The red phone then rang. When answered, the distinctive voice of Whiterose (BD Wong) began to speak. “No, no. Please don’t talk. I have allotted precisely one minute and twenty seven seconds for this conversation.” The character then went on to provide hints about the upcoming season of Mr. Robot, the main thrust of which (as well as I can recall) was that things were in motion that were much deeper than E Corp president Phillip Price (Michael Cristofer) and others currently realize.

After replacing the receiver at the end of the call, my interlocutor said I had earned the right to see something. He handed me a manila envelope and said I had 30 seconds to review the contents. Inside were a series of photos from season 3 of Mr. Robot.

After viewing the photos, I returned them to the envelope and handed it back. I was then told I could leave and was shown the door.

Once in the hallway, participants who turned over their cellphones had them returned. I exited the hallway to return to the bustle of San Diego’s 4th Avenue and the crowd blissfully dining at the Red Wheelbarrow.

Worlds Within Worlds

The final phase of this elaborate marketing activation was a haunting experience. Being placed into a bizarre situation from the show — not as a digital simulation, but a physical environment interacting with human performers — is an eerie experience.

It’s striking how much effort went into the hidden elements of the marketing experience that would be seen by only a few fans of the show. A representative from Civic Entertainment Group, the company that helped to develop the activation with USA Networks, told me the final act of the experience took about 8 minutes. Allowing for buffer time between each session, this implies that only six or seven people per hour could go through the experience. As mentioned above, draining of the fish tank was dropped in order to decrease the time to cycle between each session. And some people were reportedly told they could bring a friend, which would double the number of participants. Even so, it’s a large effort for a limited audience.

Of course, the Mr. Robot presence at Comic-Con extended beyond the obscure clues that led to the final experience. The closed Mr. Robot Repair Shop, the Bank of E, and Red Wheelbarrow BBQ were readily apparent to anyone who strolled by.

In a way, this echoes the structure of the Mr. Robot TV show itself. Many viewers simply watch each hour-long episode. Others pick up on the obscure references and hidden “Easter eggs” that reveal additional story details or lead to other websites or videos for a deeper experience.

The Comic-Con Mr. Robot Experience was a rich interactive component to the show’s layered, transmedia content.

Related articles:

 

Updated with additional details on why the posters were changed each day. 

The images from Mr. Robot are from a copyrighted television program, the copyright for which is most likely owned by the program’s production company and/or distributor and possibly also by any actors appearing in the image. It is believed that the use of a web-resolution screenshot for identification and critical commentary on the film and its contents qualifies as fair use under United States copyright law. All other photos on this page are copyright © 2017 Kendall Whitehouse.

From the Real World to the Virtual: Westworld at New York Comic Con

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Virtual reality (VR) had a significant presence at ReedPop’s New York Comic Con this year. A dedicated exhibition space on the lower level of the Javits Center, dubbed the Experiential Zone, demonstrated a number of approaches to virtual reality and immersive cinema for both entertainment and marketing.

Entrance to the Westworld VR Experience.
Entrance to the Westworld VR Experience.

One of the most compelling examples of using virtual reality for a marketing experience didn’t take place inside the Javits Center, however. A half block away on West 37th Street, HBO’s Westworld VR Experience presented a combination physical environment and virtual experience to promote the network’s sci-fi series.

The Westworld VR Experience debuted a month earlier at TechCrunch Disrupt SF. At New York Comic Con, the virtual simulation was enhanced by a physical space that set the stage for the immersive experience.

Hybrid Physical/Virtual Environment

This type of hybrid physical/virtual environment has been featured in a number of recent high profile marketing “activations” (as the industry terms them). At this past summer’s San Diego Comic-Con, Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle VR Experience combined a virtual simulation with a constructed environment designed to recreate the world of the program. (The Man in the High Castle VR Experience was also present in New York Comic Con’s Experiential Zone, but without the physical installation preceding the VR experience.) The most notable recent blending of real world and virtual environments as part of a marketing activation was the Mr. Robot Virtual Reality Experience at San Diego Comic-Con. After entering a detailed reconstruction of the bedroom of the show’s protagonist, Elliot Alderson, you then enter a VR simulation that begins in the very room in which you’re sitting. It’s an uncanny sensation.

Westworld entrance.
Welcome to Westworld.

New York Comic Con’s Westworld activation presents a similar experience that transitions from the real world to the virtual.

A short distance from the Javits Center, a sleek facade with frosted glass doors displays the logo: “Westworld: A Delos Destination.” Inside you enter a lustrous black and glass corridor and are greeted by performers playing the role of Westworld’s “hosts,” the program’s synthetic humans. Dressed in white and speaking in eerily measured tones, the hosts welcome you to Westworld.

Westworld host.
Your host greets you.

After a few introductory comments — and warnings about violence and nudity in the virtual experience — you stand in the center of a black room, empty except for a chair in the corner. An assistant helps you don your HTC Vive VR headset and audio headphones, and you grasp your Vive controller. You’re also told that should you feel uncomfortable during the experience you can raise your hand and the assistant will help you end the experience (advice that’s both comforting yet somehow unnerving).

In many of these interactive simulations, including The Man in the High Castle Experience and the Mr. Robot VR Experience, the participant remains seated at the center of a 360-degree virtual environment. In the Westworld Experience, by contrast, you can move around to a limited degree within the environment. This can be disconcerting, since you’re moving through a physical space you can’t see. To avoid accidentally running into the walls, the simulation displays a series of bars floating in space if you move too close to the edge.

Entering Westworld

The Westworld simulation plays out over three brief tableaux. It begins with you entering a room where you select your weapon and decide whether you want to wear a white or a black hat. The simulation closely follows the scene in episode 2 of the program where new Westworld guest William (Jimmi Simpson) is presented with a similar set of choices. (When I went through the virtual experience, I hadn’t yet seen this episode. When I finally watched it, it gave me an eerie sense of déjà vu.)

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Inside the Westworld simulation, the sheriff approaches.

After making these choices, you enter the western setting familiar from the show. A row of wooden buildings stands beside sandstone cliffs under a wide, blue sky. After picking up ammunition and loading your revolver, you engage in target practice by shooting bottles.

A sheriff then ambles over to recruit you to join a posse. But before that gets underway, the sheriff starts to glitch. Something’s not right here.

You’re instructed to move over to the chair in the corner. (This is one of the more bizarre aspects of the simulation. Contacting a physical object in a space that you perceive through a virtual simulation is an odd experience.)

Once seated, the setting changes to the Delos lab where simulated humans are being created and repaired. With the ability to look in any direction, you can survey the entire scene. Things are glitching here as well. Your vision falters and lights flash. There’s a commotion in the lab. A synthetic human is out of control. Things are clearly breaking down in Westworld.

The Throughput Conundrum: Does It Scale?

As impressive as the simulation is, it has one constraint as a marketing tool: throughput. The interactive experience lasts 11 minutes. Allowing time for a brief introduction and exit, sessions are scheduled in 15 minute blocks. At New York Comic Con, there were two rooms that ran simultaneously. Thus, eight people per hour can participate in the experience, which runs for nine hours each day for a total of 72 people per day, or 288 participants throughout the four days of the convention.

This is obviously a small fraction of the attendees at the con. (Because New York Comic Con reports the number of tickets sold, rather than the number of unique individuals, it’s difficult to know exactly how many people attend the event.)

As I previously discussed in Knowledge@Wharton [“Marketing at Comic-Con: Virtual Reality Melds with the Real World“] the approach taken by the Mr. Robot VR Experience may offer a more effective model for this type of marketing event. The 13-minute Mr. Robot simulation was launched at San Diego Comic-Con through a similar hybrid physical/virtual environment. [For more on the Mr. Robot Experience, see “The Mr. Robot VR Experience, Storytelling, and the Future of Immersive Media.”] The video was also available during an online simulcast for users with home VR systems such as Google Cardboard. Subsequently, it has been made available online in multiple formats for VR gear, mobile devices, and desktop systems.

This approach leverages the buzz generated by the hardcore fans who attend Comic Con, while also gaining a larger audience through the simulcast, and then further expands the piece’s reach through the on-demand offerings.

As VR plays an expanding role in marketing, expect to see more of this layered approach to reach a broadest possible audience for these rich, interactive experiences.

 

A version of this article also appears in Knowledge@Wharton: “Entering Westworld: VR Marketing at New York Comic Con.”

Image from the Westworld VR Experience is from a copyrighted work, the copyright for which is most likely owned by the production company and/or distributor. It is believed that the use of a web-resolution screenshot for identification and critical commentary on the film and its contents qualifies as fair use under United States copyright law. All other images © 2016 Kendall Whitehouse

The Mr. Robot VR Experience, Storytelling, and the Future of Immersive Media

Mr-Robot-VR-Elliots-apartment-montage

Virtual reality was a significant presence in the marketing experiences at Comic-Con International: San Diego this year. Both at the booths inside the Convention Center and the offsite events throughout downtown San Diego, a number of movie studios, television networks, and video game companies presented VR experiences designed to generate buzzworthy excitement in attendees. From Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle to Adult Swim’s Rick and Morty to Rocksteady’s Batman Arkham VR, fans throughout Comic-Con were donning virtual reality headsets.

Among the most impressive of these was the Mr. Robot Virtual Reality Experience written and directed by Mr. Robot creator and showrunner Sam Esmail, and developed for USA Network by Here Be Dragons and Within.

Mr-Robot-VR-Petco-SDCC-2016-photo-by-Kendall-Whitehouse-480x240
Rows of fans immersed in the Mr. Robot VR experience in Petco Park.

For an advertising piece, the VR experience ran a surprisingly long 13 minutes. One of the constraints of this type of marketing event is throughput — the number of people who can cycle through the event each hour. Of course, Sam Esmail is famous for turning in episodes of the Mr. Robot television program that run longer than their intended time slot, even going so far as to apologize on Twitter recently for doing so.

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Cast members view the Mr. Robot VR experience at Petco Park.

The Mr. Robot VR Experience was available from several locations during San Diego Comic-Con, including in white Uber vans designed to resemble Mr. Robot repair vehicles driving around the Gaslamp Quarter and at an event with the show’s cast at Petco Park. It was also broadcast live during the Petco Park event, allowing fans not attending Comic-Con to share the experience (in what an NBC/Universal press release described as “largest-ever co-viewing virtual reality simulcast event”). Subsequently, the VR segment has been made available for on-demand viewing on home devices, mobile phones, and desktop systems.

The most effective venue for the virtual reality experience, however, was a pop-up installation constructed in downtown San Diego that featured a physical, real-world environment that cleverly blended with the virtual content.

Mr-Robot-Repair-Shop-SDCC-2016-photo-by-Kendall-Whitehouse-480x240
The sign above the Mr. Robot repair shop in downtown San Diego for Comic-Con.

USA Network converted the exterior of a downtown San Diego building into a recreation of the Mr. Robot repair shop run by Elliot’s late father in the show. On entering the building, circa mid-1990s era computers, parts, and advertisements continue the illusion. A corridor at the rear of the shop leads to another room, a reconstruction of Elliot’s apartment as seen in the show. While waiting for a VR headset to free up, you can explore the details of Elliot’s life scattered around the room: his desktop computer, circuit boards, and even bills from New York City utility companies. This is familiar territory, a place we’ve seen many times in the television show.

Mr-Robot-VR-SDCC-2016-photo-by-Kendall-Whitehouse-480x270
From inside a reconstruction of Elliot’s apartment, you enter the virtual world…

After taking a seat and putting on a Samsung Gear headset and a pair of headphones, the real world is replaced by the virtual. The virtual environment you initially enter is, somewhat surprisingly, Elliot’s apartment — essentially identical to the physical location in which you’re actually sitting. There’s a noteworthy exception, however: As you turn your head, Elliot (played by Rami Malek) is sitting beside you.

While narratively working as a flashback — the video covers events that occurred before the time frame of show’s first season — it is, in fact, a contemporary memory. We’re experiencing Elliot’s current recollections of a much earlier event.

Mr-Robot-VR-Elliots-apartment-480x270
…the virtual world of Elliot’s apartment with Elliot sitting next to you.

The voice we hear, Rami Malek’s Elliot, is the voice inside his head. As he does in the TV show, Elliot is simultaneously thinking to himself and narrating his inner thoughts to us, his ever-present, but unseen, companion.

Elliot is about to go on a first date with Shayla, a character we know from the first season of the show. In those TV episodes, Shayla is Elliot’s friend, drug supplier, and occasional lover. In the VR experience, Elliot is recalling their first encounter and how deeply he wants to avoid seeing her, how painful he finds these artificially-constructed social situations.

As Elliot smokes a joint, the camera floats upward toward the ceiling and we now view the scene from this more disengaged perspective. We follow Elliot and Shayla on their date to Coney Island and join them as they ride on a Ferris wheel, the VR simulation providing a dramatic 360-degree view of the surroundings. As their relationship grows closer, the scene melds into an abstract sequence with the two characters dancing in silhouette against a color-shifting background. Finally we return back to the “reality” of the apartment in the virtual world — and, again, in the real world when we remove the Samsung Gear headsets.

In its 13 minutes, Esmail’s piece runs the gamut from realistically grounded to surrealistically untethered and back again. As the locations change throughout the piece, the mood swings from reticence to euphoria to tragic loss.

The Mr. Robot VR video assumes we’re familiar with season 1 of the show, and uses that information as a backstory to make an immediate emotional connection. (Spoiler alert if you haven’t seen the first season of Mr. Robot.) Because of what we know of the series, Shayla’s plea for Elliot to remember her gains a profoundly melancholy dimension. We, like Elliot, feel sorrow and desperation as he struggles to hold on to his recollection of her as his memory falters and fades. It’s an emotionally powerful moment.

Aside from being a compelling VR experience, Email’s piece also an example of the power of transmedia storytelling. While based on what we know about the television series, it expands the narrative into new territory. It offers new details on the relationship between Elliot and Shayla and adds emotional depth to his feelings of loss and guilt. It’s a powerful work that both stands on its own as a self-contained 13-minute vignette and adds additional depth to television episodes.

Whatever it may indicate about the possibilities of VR for media marketing, the Mr. Robot Virtual Reality Experience may also point to the future of rich, multi-threaded storytelling across different media.

 

The image from the Mr. Robot Virtual Reality Experience is from a copyrighted film, the copyright for which is most likely owned by the film’s production company and/or distributor and possibly also by any actors appearing in the image. It is believed that the use of a web-resolution screenshot for identification and critical commentary on the film and its contents qualifies as fair use under United States copyright law.

Old Habits Die Hard: What Matters in Media Metrics

dollhouse-twitter-w240.jpgIn between the flurry of stories about Fox Broadcasting declining to air the mysterious 13th episode of Joss Whedon’s “Dollhouse” and concerns that the series may be summarily canceled, an interesting tidbit appeared on Twitter from the Whedon camp.

Despite rumors that Fox has already decided to cancel “Dollhouse,” published reports have claimed that the network doesn’t plan to make a final decision on the program’s future until their “up-front” week in late May. The notion that the series’ fate is still undecided was reinforced by a tweet yesterday from @drhorrible (Whedon and company) which stated, in part, “If more people watch Dollhouse LIVE, the higher our chances for a 2nd season”

Beyond the thread of hope it gives to fans of the series, this message implies that the fate of “Dollhouse” is largely in the hands of those who watch the Fox network broadcast of the show. People viewing the same content on their digital video recorders (DVRs) or at Hulu.com a day later are apparently less important to the powers at Fox who control the network’s programming.

DVR viewing is admittedly problematic since most viewers skip over the advertisements which are intended to fund the “free” content. But Hulu should be a marketer’s dream, since viewers are unable bypass the advertisements (and, because of their brevity, there is little incentive to walk away and do something else until the spots are over). In addition, user tracking data for sites like Hulu (as well as some DVRs like the TiVo) is much more accurate and more detailed than that of broadcast television.

Furthermore, although the details are a bit murky, there is evidence that Hulu’s ad rates are as good as or better than those of broadcast television. In March, 2008 Hulu CEO Jason Kilar claimed that Hulu’s ad rate was better than that of primetime network programming. In June, 2008, a Silicon Alley Insider article also stated that Hulu’s ad rates are “higher than network TV.” The latter, however, cited a range of $25 to $30 CPM (per thousand views) for ads on Hulu, which is in the same neighborhood as the average  30-second primetime TV spot according to the Television Bureau of Advertising, an industry trade association.

Whether or not “Dollhouse” (or any other network show) survives to run another season, it’s unfortunate that the program’s fate may rest on the actions of one segment of its viewing audience. To the extent this is true, it’s another example of how industry practice lags behind the current state of media evolution.

Avoiding the “Excluded Middle”: Counter Moves in a Down-Market Trend

Jon Fine’s “Media Centric” column in the December 13 BusinessWeek describes the launch of Tyler Brûlé’s Monocle magazine which, contrary to current publishing trends, focuses on a high-end product that revels in its print origins. Fine writes, “In a manner almost wholly lost at American magazines, [Monocle] cherishes the primacy of a print publication as physical object. Each issue contains startling photography, multiple kinds of paper stock, and, somewhat discordantly, concludes with a manga comic. Monocle is either prescient, or steering sharply toward an audience that doesn’t exist.” Fine concludes, “perhaps Monocle evinces a next generation of magazines: higher-end, aimed at much smaller audiences, and with a Web component more like TV than print.”

Or this may be merely an example of what might be termed the “excluded middle”: When products or services become commoditized, it’s the broad, mid-market that disappears. But there’s a corollary to this observation: As everyone runs to the low end of the market to expand share in an attempt to retain profits as margins shrink, you can often stake out a profitable niche by doing the exact opposite — moving to the high-end of the market.

When the multiplex began to dominate theatrical movie exhibition, it seemed to signal the end of large screen movie houses. Indeed, the economics of the multiplex were impossible to deny: more screens offered more consumer choice, the option to allocate screens based on a film’s popularity maximized capacity, the ability to show a single print on multiple screens by staggering the start times trimmed costs and gave the audience more viewing options. But as the drive toward smaller screens advanced, IMAX was able to differentiate itself by doing the exact opposite: enhancing the theatrical experience with a larger screens and better sound. (For more on IMAX, see Knowledge@Wharton: IMAX CEO Richard Gelfond on What’s Next for the Big Screen)

While Dell and HP try to squeeze profits from low-cost commodity PCs, Apple charges a premium for the sophisticated design of its systems. Apple did the same thing in the late 1970s and early 1980s when Commodore and Atari tried to undercut each other on price at the low end of the home computer market while Apple stayed at the high end with the Apple II.

Of course this doesn’t mean that every high end product will succeed in a commoditized market. The secret of success is more complex than that. And I have no idea whether Monocle will ultimately prove successful. But its counter move to the high end of the publishing market makes sense.

Like the Johnny Mercer / Harold Arlen song advises, “Don’t mess with Mister In-Between,” but bear in mind that this leaves opportunities at both ends of the market.