Under most circumstances, I’m actually a pretty big fan of viral marketing. Whether you’re talking about a mysterious cell phone or an elaborate alternate reality game, it’s fun to have the line between our reality and a fictional world blurred just a little. It might not always work — okay, most of the time it doesn’t work — but when everything clicks into place, it’s like you’re Neo in The Matrix: nothing around you is what it seems, and you’re the hero of the story.
So I was pretty excited when a couple of days ago a stranger was waiting outside my door with a big box wrapped with a bow. Inside was a note along with something very cool: a heat-sensitive Tetris coffee mug. I remembered them from back in the ‘80s — I’ve been obsessed with the ‘80s lately — but then I read the note. "Thank you for letting me borrow your Game Boy when we were younger," it read. "Remember all the hours of Tetris?"
It was signed with a Twitter handle, @YourFriendGordo, and a look at the back revealed the logo for a company named STX Entertainment. A quick Google search later, it was obvious this was all about a new Jason Bateman movie called The Gift, in which Bateman’s character is harassed by an old friend named Gordo (Joel Edgerton, who also writes and directs) over some past perceived wronging.
Tetris coffee mug courtesy of @YourFriendGordo. Look like marketing for The Gift - does Edgerton visit my house next? pic.twitter.com/RpKriHXkzJ— Bryan Bishop (@bcbishop) March 31, 2015
The thing was, I really liked Tetris on the Game Boy growing up. It was the only game I ever had for the handheld, and I played it all the time. It all just seemed to be a coincidence of groupthink nostalgia, but then I noticed that many other journalists had also received packages, each with their own personalized gift.
There was a reason the folks behind The Gift knew I was a Tetris Game Boy fan: I’d mentioned it on Twitter last year.
That could have been a step across the line (and for some it was), but I loved it. Somebody was out there, poring over people’s Twitter feeds, and injecting a jolt of that alternate reality game vibe — "ARG" for those of us who pour over these things — into my Tuesday. When the trailer for The Gift came out the following day, it was even clearer what was going on, and the green wrapping on the box I received made even more sense.
Then yesterday, there was another knock on my door. I opened it up to the sound of someone running away down the stairs. I looked out my apartment window, but couldn’t see anybody outside. There was a sketchy-looking white van, but if I got freaked out about every sketchy-looking white van in Sherman Oaks I’d never leave the house.
By my open door was a thin green envelope, my name hand-written on it, and sealed with a glob of wax imprinted with a "G." I was excited. What was it going to be? How much more creepy could "Gordo" get?
As it turns out… a lot more creepy.
Inside were four Polaroid-style prints. I recognized the first as an Instagram picture I’d posted years ago. Another, of me on a plane to CES (with some creepy guy with a monkey mask photoshopped into the background). The third was my girlfriend’s cat.
I’m allergic to cats, which means they all immediately want to crawl all over me at every waking hour. It’s a small thing, but it can create awkward moments, especially when your partner loves their pet. My girlfriend does, and for good reason: her cat Ruby is amazing, and I’ve totally become one of those people that endlessly posts cat pictures because I simply can’t stand the adorableOMGcuteness that Ruby exudes.
But despite the fact that I’m posting these pictures for the entire internet to see, those moments with Ruby still feel personal. They’re intimate, no matter how large the size of the potential audience, and to receive one back at first felt disturbing — which I liked — and then like a violation. You can use pictures of me to market your movie, but you can’t use pictures of the cat, dammit.
You can use pictures of me, but you can't use pictures of the cat, dammit
Then there was the final snapshot. Last year at SXSW I got to meet Bill Cosby. At the time, it was a fun experience and I couldn’t have been more excited to share it online. Since then, well… my feelings about Bill Cosby have changed. I’ve thought several times about deleting that picture from my Instagram feed — I certainly wasn’t comfortable with the idea of it being perceived as any kind of tacit endorsement — but I always came back to the same conclusion. That it was a moment in time that I had documented online, and I should let it be just that. But that’s before it was printed out and sent to me in a green envelope.
Was I being judged by the marketers? Did they intentionally pick that image, knowing that it would upset me? Did they think I should be ashamed by it — and why the hell did I even care?
That’s where The Gift got in its own way. The folks selling the movie want me thinking about the film, but instead I’m thinking about myself. Their antics were certainly effective — hey, I’m writing this article right now, aren’t I? — and I have no larger ethical beef about the campaign itself. But when the line between the thriller movie and reality is blurred, it’s only fun when you know you’re on the safe side.