Near the beginning Barry Levinson’s film Paterno, which debuted on HBO this past Saturday, is a scene in which reporters from Harrisburg Pennsylvania’s Patriot-News huddle around a computer monitor to read the criminal charges filed against retired football coach Jerry Sandusky. As the camera shows the team glued to the screen, the back of the computer display shows the logo of E Corp, the fictional mega-conglomerate in USA Network’s Mr. Robot. Wait… what?
In a wider shot, it’s clear the monitors are from Dell Computer, whose rotated E in the company’s logo bears a casual resemblance to the E Corp logo, but the visual identities of the two are distinct. The logo in the close-up is E Corp.
It’s not clear why the original logo was swapped out for that of E Corp. Perhaps it was a clearance issue. Or, more likely, the production team felt that a shot that features the logo so prominently would look like a product placement or would otherwise detract from the drama of the moment. So some clever person — perhaps a Mr. Robot fan — must have dropped in the E Corp logo (likely in post production).
This approach might come in handy for other productions. Just as movie phone numbers are typically from the non-existent KL5 (555) exchange, there are instances in which substituting a fictional logo for an actual one solves problems of clearances or audience focus. E Corp could become the KLondike-5 of corporate branding in movies and television, the Alan Smithee of corporate identity.
Is Elliot Alderson the New Tommy Westphall?
Were E Corp to appear more broadly across movie and TV properties it would, no doubt, give rise to marvelous fan theories about how it all ties together within the universe of Mr. Robot.
It may be time to update the Tommy Westphall Universe Hypothesis to realize that most of what we see on television is, in fact, all in the mind of Mr. Robot’s Elliot Alderson.
The image from Paterno 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.
Thanks to Brian Jason Ford for suggesting the Tommy Westphall reference.
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
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.
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
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.)
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.)
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.
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.
The venue’s main space was a soaring three-story atrium. At its pinnacle, a large letter E was suspended.
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.
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.
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
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)
ask for benny the bus driver
outside the service entrance.
come alone. wear black pants
and a white-long sleeve dress
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.'”
You’ve proven yourself worthy of our cause. Go to the champagne station and find Charles. Tell him, “I am the 99%.”
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.
“are you seeing this, too?”
As the party was underway, the secret missions began.
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:
That site displayed a brief video that intercuts shots of a hoodie-wearing member of fsociety with a sequence of messages:
WE HAVE A MISSION FOR YOU.
GO TO THE STAIRWALL BEHIND THE BAR.
The final screen shows the fsociety mask with the following message:
1. ASK FOR JESSIE
2. SHOW THEM A
SCREEN SHOT OF
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.
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:
I AM FSOCIETY.
WE ARE FSOCIETY.
TOGETHER WE CAN
BUILD A NEW WORLD
WHERE WE ARE
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.
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:
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
Leave the costume
Take your mask but keep it under wraps
You’ll need it later
keep me hidden.
show your allegiance
to the rebellion.
look for an out of the
put me on.
take a picture
share that picture
with the world.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.”]
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.
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.
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!!
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.
you’re on your way.
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.
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
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:
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:
Unscrambling and rearranging these gives: “Find The Right Number to Unlock Enlightenment Behind That Door.”
The door led to a dimly lit hallway with graffiti on the walls. A woman in a hoodie 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.
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”).
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.
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 obscurereferences and hidden “Easter eggs” that reveal additional story details or lead to otherwebsites or videos for a deeper experience.
The Comic-Con Mr. Robot Experience was a rich interactive component to the show’s layered, transmedia content.