Fake Blogs, True Buzz

CHICAGO TRIBUNE – When a video-game tester named Beta-7 began suffering from blackouts and uncontrollable fits of violence, he launched a blog to campaign against the release of the game causing his problems.

After four months of battling gamemaker Sega, Beta-7 mysteriously disappeared. Sound like the premise to a thriller?

It was a hoax.

Beta-7 (www.beta-7.com) was part of a new marketing trend that uses fake blogs to promote products. Conceived by the New York office of Portland, Ore.-based advertising agency Wieden & Kennedy, the blog was intended to create a buzz for Sega’s “ESPN NFL Football 2K4” game and draw attention away from Electronic Arts’ “Madden Football 2004”–the game that dominates the segment.

“We had to come up with something that EA wouldn’t do and with a smaller budget. We knew that most bloggers are also hard-core gamers,” said Bobby Hershfield, the lead copywriter for the Beta-7 campaign.

The Beta-7 blog and two others featured pictures of injuries suffered by gamers during blackouts, and bulletin-board messages were posted across the Internet about the adverse side effects of playing. Confidential company memos–purportedly acquired by another game tester–were posted that portrayed Sega as increasingly worried about the problems.

There were even video clips of Beta-7 and other testers tackling strangers on the street. The producers of the “Blair Witch Project” were commissioned to create the authentic-looking clips.

Sega’s mock concern spilled over into other media. In a television commercial, Oakland Raider defensive tackle Warren Sapp denounced rumors that “ESPN NFL Football” caused violence or erratic behavior.

Beta-7 ran for four months and ended with the September release of the game. The beginning and end of the campaign were scripted ahead of time, but everything in between was created on the fly and in response to how the audience reacted.

“We were constantly changing things,” said Hershfield. “We were able to keep it entertaining.”

The unique campaign–the sites attracted 2.2 million visitors– appears to be successful. Sega said sales have improved over last year by 20 percent, selling about 360,000 games.

That is still a far cry from Madden’s sales of more than 5 million copies in 2003. And “Madden NFL 2005” broke records, selling 1.3 million copies in its first week of release.

Faux blogs, while relatively new, have not always been well- received.

Soft drink-maker Dr Pepper/7 Up Inc. was among the first mainstream firms to use blogs to lend a “hip legitimacy” to a product, said business blog consultant Rick Bruner.

The company invited bloggers to write about Raging Cow, a flavored-milk drink targeted at teens and young adults. But when legitimate bloggers discovered that company-sponsored shills were recruited to post comments, some bloggers responded by creating a Web site to boycott Raging Cow.

The boycott is going a year later.

That doesn’t surprise Jason McCabe Calacanis, founder of Weblog Inc., one of the largest blog publishing companies.

“It’s tough to get away with anything on a blog,” he said. “Once people find out they’ve been burned, they’ll call you out.”

Warner Bros. Records Inc. recently tried to insinuate itself into the blog world. It pitched a release by the Secret Machines to a new crop of MP3 blogs–forums that publish music reviews alongside links to download the song. One site accepted the song.

But when a string of suspiciously positive comments appeared, the editors traced the messages to Warner Bros. The song was stricken from the site, and word spread quickly among blogs of what Warner had done.

The tactic is not new for music companies.

Record companies have been self-promoting for years on bulletin boards and chat rooms. But many bloggers consider themselves a new kind of journalist and take deception in their space personally.

“Business has to rethink their approach,” said Calacanis. “Every time a new medium comes out, advertisers take advantage. It’s highly unethical deceiving your reader. It can impact the image and sales of products.”

Some faux blogs make no pretense and declare themselves as self- promotional.

Jane’s Blog (http://jane.blogs.com) is written by a character on the Oxygen Channel show “Good Girls Don’t.” The blog disclaims itself: “By the way, I’m not actually real, I’m a fictitious character. But that won’t stop me from writing to you every day.”

The site features real links to other blogs and allows public comments, which are two of Calacanis’ defining traits for a blog.

“It has to allow comments or it’s not a blog,” he said.

Many visitors to Sega’s Beta-7 site who may have realized it was a hoax were entertained. Some commented on other blogs that they didn’t care if Beta-7 was a marketing campaign or not.

Weiden even created a conspiracy site (http://truth.fjear .com) that kept people guessing. Two real fan sites sprang up to follow the drama.

Blog consultant Bruner attributes Beta-7s survival to seamless execution and short lifespan.

“They pulled one over on us, then they closed up shop. Good for them,” he said. “I suspect that was the attitude of many bloggers who did follow it.”

According to Wieden, the three mock sites collectively attracted 2.2 million visitors and more than 4 million downloads in the four months they were active. The sites also proved sticky, meaning viewers tended to stay longer.

“People were spending an average of 10 to 11 minutes on the Beta- 7 site,” Hershfield said. And die-hard fans continued to visit and write in after the campaign officially ended.

“We never came clean,” said Hershfield.