New ad campaigns appeal to an unusual organ — your brainLike most people, I detest most modern marketing. Singing, dancing idiots trying to convince me to buy their cell phones, their sodas, their cheaply-made-in-third-world-countries pants and shoes — all annoying as hell. For the most part, so much advertising is aimed at the lowest common denominator that I tune out nearly all of it these days.

A few months ago, though, everyone was talking about the billboards that popped up across town with the spooky backlit faces and the words “Hear Me” in bold letters below. A quick Google search revealed little connected to the phrase besides a link to a site for HIV/AIDS awareness and the lyrics for a Kelly Clarkson song. As Patrick Sharbaugh wrote in the March 28 issue not long after they debuted, however, those billboards changed to read “,” a website to promote the Charleston Symphony Orchestra, solving the puzzle behind those unsettling images.

They’re a fairly low-key example, but the billboards were taking advantage of the burgeoning advertising strategy known as viral or guerilla marketing, which at its most extreme becomes an alternate reality game. In this kind of campaign, the product being marketed is actually one of the last things to be revealed. This can sometimes backfire with spectacular results; if you remember the brouhaha that transpired earlier this year with the “suspected terror devices” in Boston that were part of the Aqua Teen Hunger Force film promotion, then you know what I mean.

Lawsuits and arrests aside, the dynamics of an Alternate Reality Game (ARG) can vary, but the desired result is the same — generate interest in a product by grabbing the attention of the consumer, and usually in a way that feels much less invasive and annoying than a standard ad campaign. Of course, it will end up being about a million times more time consuming and frustrating as a result, because nothing is ever laid out nice and neat for you; generally speaking, the more complex the ARG, the more rewarding the final outcome to participants. Recent uses of this new style include the promotion for the Nine Inch Nails album Year Zero and one that recently started for the Bungee game Halo 3. While websites and the internet are usually the main source of information, it is not uncommon to find telephone numbers, e-mail, and faxes connected to the campaign, among other devices.

During NIN’s European tour, some fans found flash drives hidden in bathrooms and other locations, featuring not only music from the album, but other files with information that delved deeper into the narrative Trent Reznor had created behind the record — a bleak, dystopian future where the concept of freedom has been replaced with the need for morality. This story unfolded online in a variety of frightening photographs, MP3s, videos, and interrogation transcripts. Not exactly an ad with a singing, dancing soda can.

The biggest appeal of these kinds of campaigns is that they require people to work together to solve the puzzles and questions set forth. They’re the exact opposite of the quick-edit style ads thrown at us daily — you’ve gotta use your brain to figure out what is happening and pool resources with other people who might have more knowledge of a certain topic than you do: math, astronomy, sailing, html, foreign languages, CIA interrogation methods.

A word of warning, though. If you find yourself getting sucked into one of these campaigns, be prepared for a lot of frustration, anger, and confusion; if that happens, your only solace is the fact that you are doing it right. Probably. Happy hunting.

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