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TELEVISION & RADIO

`Vanished' campaign hasn't a clue

September 29, 2006|Deborah Netburn | Times Staff Writer

With the vast array of message boards and websites available online, obsessive fans have plenty of avenues to exchange theories, spoilers and speculation about their favorite TV shows. Savvy marketers, such as those for the ABC show "Lost," have been adept at using promotional materials that spill out beyond the edges of the show, creating mysteries embedded online or in the real world for fans to chase.

Sometimes, however, a publicity machine can be too clever for its own good, as was the case this fall when the PR department at Fox hoped to court this community with press materials for the new hourlong thriller "Vanished." So carefully embedded in the documents were the clues, that few even realized they were there, and a great viral mystery was not only left unsolved, but a slumbering world remained unaware that the trail even existed.

"Vanished," which premiered in late August, is a show built around symbols. The drama begins when Sara Collins (Joanne Kelly), the wife of a senator from Georgia, is discovered missing. FBI agents are called in to investigate the situation and in doing so they uncover, according to the show's website, "enigmatic clues about a larger sinister conspiracy." The letter V shows up repeatedly along the trail, as does the number nine (recently revealed to be an upside-down G), leading the investigators to speculate that somehow Masons are involved.

"The show has many levels to it, one of which is a far-reaching conspiracy," said Joe Earley, executive vice president of publicity, corporate communications and creative services at the studio. "The fan base for that type of show is very detail-oriented and very investigative, so what I said to everyone on the publicity side is, 'I want to make it worth their while.' "

Earley had the photo department embed symbols in the publicity photos -- a 9 in the wrinkle of a sleeve, a V in the cut of a woman's dress. The publicity kit also included a card that if dipped in water would reveal the number nine (which is actually the upside-down G), and on that card is the phone number (310) 369-7272, where callers hear the recorded voice of the senator's wife leaving a panicked message for her parents. And 7272 spells "Sara" on the telephone keypad. ("That's not even necessary since in theory this is a voicemail, but it shows we were going the extra step," said Earley.)

The only problem is that very few members of the media actually picked up on all those secret clues. A letter attached to the press kit noted, "As with the series nothing is as it seems and all the materials in this kit should be closely examined and kept for analysis throughout the season."

Apparently, no one noticed. The show has not been a huge hit out of the gate, but is performing respectably. The network's most recent ratings information has "Vanished" averaging 7.4 million viewers and ranking third among adults 18 to 49 in its 9 p.m. Monday time slot.

And so Wednesday afternoon Josh Governale, the publicist working on "Vanished," called to explain the clues to the Los Angeles Times.

Earley said the materials were always meant for the fans rather than the press. "Honestly, our goal with this was for fans to discover it more than the press," he said.

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