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Diversionary Tactic

Santa Monica Agency Creates Fake Social Movement to Promote Sega's Online Game Network

September 18, 1997|DENISE GELLENE

'Some call me Rev. Bartha," begins the online missive. "This is not about churches and Sundays. The devil needs the angel. Violence needs affection. No needs yes."

Sound like the musings of a lunatic fringe? Exactly what Sega Soft wants Web surfers to believe.

The ramblings are part of an unusual advertising campaign intended to create a buzz about Heat, an online game network being launched by Sega Soft this week.

Working with its advertising agency, Ground Zero of Santa Monica, Sega Soft has developed 10 Web sites around the phony cause of Cyberdiversion--a movement dedicated to peace through violent computer game play, led by a fake guru. Sega Soft isn't identified as a sponsor of the sites, contrary to convention on the World Wide Web.

Sega Soft hopes people attracted to the sites will find and use their links to Heat.

The campaign shows how the Internet can be used--some might say abused--by advertisers eager to attract consumers. The anonymous nature of the World Wide Web allows Sega Soft to sponsor a "grass-roots" marketing campaign without detection.

Whether the tactic works remains to be seen. Sega Soft said a small number of Web surfers have stumbled on to the sites since it began phasing them in three months ago. Coming only months after the Heaven's Gate tragedy, the phony Cyberdiversion cult is in questionable taste.

"I think it's over the top," said Seth Goldstein, president of the online advertising unit of CKS, a leader in Internet advertising. "I think the verdict is out as to what degree of success they will have with it."

The campaign provides yet another example of how advertisers are using unconventional means to reach consumers overloaded with traditional advertising messages. Advertisers are issuing their own magazines, sponsoring concert tours and taking other steps to get their names before consumers.

Sega Soft developed the offbeat campaign because Heat is a marketing challenge. The online world is already crowded with networks such as MPath and Total Entertainment Network that allow computer game players to shoot, destroy and dismember in cyberspace for a fee. So far, no one has figured out how to make money.

As a latecomer to online gaming, "we needed to stand out," said Sega Soft representative Greg Chiemingo. "We thought it would be interesting to create a grass-roots campaign--my tongue firmly planted in cheek--on how we propose to save the world."

Using the Internet was logical for Sega Soft since its customers--male computer game players--are likely to be on it. Chiemingo said the Cyberdiversion idea was first tested on focus groups of male college students, to check their reaction to a phony social movement.

"They told us it was a cool idea--as opposed to saying, 'You guys are full of it.' We saw Cyberdiversion as the kind of debate that could develop on college campuses," Chiemingo said.

The so-called movement combines stereotypes about cults and 1970s flower children. The Cyberdiversion site has disconnected mumblings from guru D.G. Bartha--in reality, an employee at Ground Zero. Separate sites are for a peace institute and an enemies list. In the hope of prompting debate, Sega Soft created a site in opposition to Cyberdiversion--purportedly maintained by a group of concerned parents.

Sega Soft and its agency have gone to great lengths to establish Cyberdiversion as a grass-roots movement. In anticipation of the campaign, Ground Zero dispatched protesters to the O.J. Simpson civil trial, where placards about Cyberdiversion were picked up by local television stations.

In the spring, a Ground Zero employee crashed a lecture at UCLA and questioned Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates about Cyberdiversion theory, seeking his reaction. Gates responded that he was unfamiliar with it.

The Cyberdiversion sites have a link to Sega Soft's official Heat site, a hint to savvy Web surfers about the origins of Cyberdiversion. Yet some Internet users have been sucked in.

"This is a joke, isn't it?" said an e-mail to Mothers Against Cyberdiversion, one of the sites set up by Sega to oppose its own movement. "Do you have any evidence that playing virtual games has a detrimental effect on children?"

"Is this a real organization or a parody?" e-mailed another visitor.

Sega Soft says it reveals its identity to people who ask.

"This is what you call gray propaganda," said Jason Catlett, an online activist who distributes free software that blocks advertising. "It is not illegal, but people may feel deceived when they discover a site they thought was put up by amateur hobbyists is really commercial propaganda."

Sega Soft is also using conventional methods to promote Heat. It has taken ads in computer gaming magazines and has placed banner ads on Web sites directing viewers to Heat. There are no banners for Cyberdiversion sites--which could end up killing the phony movement.

Given the clutter on the Internet, "how will people find it?" said Tom Beeby, creative director at Modem Media in Connecticut, an agency that specializes in Internet advertising. "They are trying to generate word-of-mouse, but I am skeptical."

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

AD RATINGS

McDonald's ran more than twice as many commercials as its nearest fast-food competitor in Los Angeles during prime-time programming from Aug. 25 to Aug. 31, reaching more than 4.9 million homes, some on multiple occasions. Leading advertisers in the Los Angeles market during prime-time programming the last week of August:

*--*

Household Total Brand rating* ads McDonald's 678.7 99 Wendy's 245.9 40 Ford autos & trucks 212.4 61 Dodge autos & trucks 202.2 60 Lexus autos 185.6 31 Nissan autos & trucks 182.1 36 Sears 180.1 24 HomeBase 172.6 39 Nissan Altima 169.8 22 "Star Wars" trilogy videos 164.3 28

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* Each rating point represents 49,424 homes.

Source: Nielsen Media Research Monitor-Plus service

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