The billboards arrived without fanfare or explanation in more than a dozen major cities last May. Bearing two simple catch phrases, "Harvey Dent for district attorney" and "I believe in Harvey Dent," they featured a photo of a stately Dent (imagine Eliot Spitzer with a shock of blond hair) against an American flag.
But within 72 hours, each billboard had been defaced by identical graffiti: The candidate's eyes were scrawled over with black rings, his lips crudely rouged with a smeary, clown-like grin. As well, each of the placards' messages had been altered to read: "I believe in Harvey Dent TOO."
Although not outwardly advertising anything other than Dent's political aspirations (never mind the impossibility of running for D.A. in more than one city), the billboards were in fact the opening salvo of one of the most interactive movie-marketing campaigns ever hatched by Hollywood: a multi-platform, hidden-in-plain-sight promotional blitz for the new Batman movie "The Dark Knight," which stars Christian Bale and Heath Ledger and reaches theaters on July 18.
By employing a variety of untraditional awareness-building maneuvers and starting the film's promo push strategically, more than a year before the film's release, marketers at the firm 42 Entertainment (subcontracted by the film's distributor, Warner Bros.) seem to have struck a chord with "The Dark Knight's" core constituency: fanboys and comic-book geeks. The promotional efforts -- part viral marketing initiative, part "advertainment" -- fit into an absorbing, nascent genre-bending pastime called alternate reality gaming that have been the toast of movie and comic blogs for months.
"The Dark Knight" is hardly the only summer action flick to step up its Internet game in anticipation of the tent-pole season: Trailers for "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" are spreading across the Web like kudzu since being turned into "widgets" -- small, portable applications that can be posted on social networking sites and blogs by marketers for its distributor, Paramount. Earlier this month, HarperCollins Children's Books launched a "read it before you see it" global digital campaign tying in the film "The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian" with the C.S. Lewis children's classic from which it was adapted.
And then there's good, old-fashioned movie salesmanship: The trailer for "Iron Man" has been streamed 3.7 million times on Yahoo Movies since it was launched in September.
So to stand out, "The Dark Knight's" alternate reality game (ARG for short) is mashing up advertising, scavenger-hunting and role-playing in a manner that variously recalls "The X-Files" and the play "Tony n' Tina's Wedding," "The Matrix" and the board game Clue -- all in the name of galvanizing a community of fans to bond (with the new Batman and each other) over the course of a wild goose chase.
Or to be more precise, a wild Joker chase -- one that so far has involved clues spelled out in skywriting, secret meeting points, cellphones embedded inside cakes, Internet red herrings, DIY fan contests and even fake political rallies. Moreover, last week several players were nearly arrested in Chicago while engaging in civil disobedience to promote the movie; others have even been "kidnapped" and "murdered" over the course of the game.
Befitting the campaign's covert-ops M.O., neither Warner Bros. nor 42 Entertainment would comment for this story. But as Jonathan Waite, founder of the Alternate Reality Gaming Network (www.argn .com) sees it, "The Dark Knight's" multifaceted promo push transcends marketing to exist as a standalone cultural event.
"This is looked upon as viral marketing, but you have to look at it as an engrossing experience -- you have people getting very attached to the game," Waite said. "You're not a passive onlooker, you're taking an active role. And any time you take an active role, you're emotionally connecting. That's why people keep coming back: You make personal connections with others and a community gets built."
'Take back Gotham City'
As any Bat-fanatic will tell you, the Dent propaganda is meant to conjure Batman's "Dark Knight" nemesis, politician turned crime kingpin Two Face (a role memorably embodied by Tommy Lee Jones in 1995's "Batman Forever;" Two Face is played by Aaron Eckhart in the new movie). Early in the "Dark Knight" marketing campaign, an official website for the film redirected viewers to www.ibelieveinharveydent .com -- a URL notably lacking any references to Batman that urges "concerned Gotham citizens" to "take back Gotham City" by backing the candidate's run for district attorney.
More specifically, it tells them how to get involved in a faux grass-roots political campaign through initiatives such as filming videos, writing "Take Back Gotham" songs and coming out to meet the "Dentmobile," now touring several dozen American cities.