October 19, 2009

Has the viral marketing for the 2012 film gone too far? Matt talks viral ethics with the BBC World Service

Here’s a link to an MP3 of the interview

Taken from NewsHour on BBC World Service radio.
Presenter was Mary-Ann Sieghart.
Also featuring Doctor David Morrison, snr scientist in astrobiology with NASA.
Broadcast 21:20 BST October 18th 2009

Yesterday at short notice I was asked to provide an opinion on the BBC World Service as to whether the viral marketing for 2012 had gone too far. The campaign around the film, which is based on an implausible disaster-movie scale exaggeration & embellishment of the pretty much instantly dismissable “Mayan 2012 conspiracy theories”, and was made by Roland Emmerich (the Day After Tomorrow – there’s a clue in his back catalogue), features a website claiming to be for the “Institute for Human Continuity“.

In case you haven’t read any of the massive amount of chat on the internet about 2012, December 21st (or 23rd, there seems to be some debate about how to read the date) 2012 is the end of the Mesoamerican Long Count Calendar. I’m not going to claim to be an expert (merely someone who can read and knows how to drive a web browser) but it’s pretty easy to educate yourself as to some background on this – and if you come to the same conclusion I have – decide that there is absolutely no basis for the claimed theories that the world will end on Dec 21st (or 23rd – imagine the stress if you were waiting for the end for two days!) 2012. Rather the Mayan’s actually said it was the end of the final of five ages that made up their 5125 long count calendar cycle. The fact they had invented all this calendar stuff in the first place is pretty mind boggling, and there are certain vague and disputably interpreted mentions of things that may happen around this time, but really it seems more likely it was the end of a calendar cycle and the beginning of a new one, rather than the end of the whole world. Its a little like people discovering some relics of our era with reference to someone organising a meeting near the end of the year, and assuming the end of the year was an apocalyptic event.

But conspiracy theorists have leapt on this with glee.

So the question I was asked was, was the website that the movie marketers made irresponsible? It claimed to be created by a team of scientists following 20 years of research into the phenomenon. But it did contain the movie studio’s logo, and a link to “Explore the 2012 movie experience”. So it’s fairly clearly for a film. In the work we’ve been doing over the last couple of years promoting movies, we’ve enjoyed extending film universes online in increasingly elaborate ways. We’re excited by the possibilities the web offers not only for marketing, but for storytelling in general. And we’ve done a few campaigns that play with reality (only in the same way theatre, TV, books etc play with reality, just using the tools the web offers). So I can see how this website’s come about.

Problem is a fair number of people, especially in America where people seem to be more susceptible to these things (dyou like how subtley I phrased that?) have contacted some poor Nasa scientist Dr David Morrison asking if there is any truth to the films entirely ficticious plot point that a planet from the far reaches of the solar system is on a collision course for Earth. He claims to have fielded 2000 e-mails including some from teenagers so frightened of the end of the world they claim they’d rather commit suicide than experience it.

So, on live radio I tried to give an opinion. But for the record, and having taken onboard the information I learned during the interview from Dr Morrison, my opinion is now that the campaign has made two errors:

1: The film is a massive over-hyping of an already ridiculously overblown conspiracy theory based on misinterpretation of historical facts. They’ve obviously chosen to make a film about this exactly because there is a large and active conspiracy discussing audience online. So it’s a bit of a no brainer that when you go paying high end hollywood screenwriters and big name directors to make a film based on such twaddle you’re going to get some of those folk already actively chatting even more confused. I’m not even saying the film isn’t going to be good – many films based on twaddle have been perfectly acceptable Saturday night entertainment, but they surely must have expected this. In fact it probably is a sign of success for what they’re trying to achieve. Although suicide threats are always a dubious success to say the least.

2: I have been told by the BBC producer who lined the interview up that the website has been promoted on US TV as a real entity separate from the film. I can’t actually find out if this is true on the interweb, but if it is, that sounds a bit of an error. It’s fine playing with a savvy internet audience who can work out for themselves that this is all fiction, but while I don’t make out TV audiences are stupid, they may include less web savvy people who may not be able to read the clues that the website is fictional. I mean you can see that one coming too surely.

Live radio is always a little frustrating as you can’t go back and re-write it. But having reflected the only thing I think the film company have done wrong is not put a number or e-mail address for concerned individuals on the website. The biggest injustice here is the poor guy at Nasa having to console suicidal teenagers. Surely the film studio should be picking up the pieces for the (small) mess they’ve caused themselves?