The blurring of lines between reality and fantasy can have serious consequences, as transmedia writer and game designer Andrea Phillips warned her audience at SXSW as she regaled with tales of alternate-reality marketing going too far. Phillips herself had been rebuked by NASA for her transmedia campaign for the movie 2012, for which she designed a website for the (however obviously) fictitious Institute for Human Continuity, espousing (again, obviously) fictitious scientific claims of the imminent end of the world. Even actual rocket scientists have a hard time telling hoax from reality. Phillips notes the case of the fictitious rain forest-destroying villain of the Brazilian alternate-reality game Zona Incerta being denounced on the floor of the very-real Brazilian senate floor.
While “realistic” transmedia can result in misunderstanding and embarrassment, pushing the boundaries of “alternate reality” too far into the real world can have serious results. Phillips brought up the example of Saatchi & Saatchi’s “Your Other You” campaign for Toyota which invited people to sign their “friends” up for personalized pranks and harrasment from their team of “maniacs” – resulting in a multi-million dollar lawsuit filed against Toyota, Saatchi & Saatchi and their team by one unhappy victim of their promotional stunts.
Even crazier is Phillip’s story of a Dell Computers in-house marketing team who staged a mock terrorist attack on the company headquarters in Round Rock, Texas, with masked men storming the offices, brandishing “metallic objects” and demanding that “everybody go to the lobby” for what was to be a promotional announcement, but instead resulted in the police being called and the masked marketers being arrested under misdemeanor charges.
As Phillips warns,
People do not like to be fooled. They themselves want to be the ones to blur the lines between reality and fiction […] Anonymity does not give people incentive to participate; in fact, it is easier to reach an audience and generate greater interest by being upfront about the origin of a campaign.