EDITOR'S NOTE: Very thought-provoking ideas on viral here. Say what you want, but the proof is in the numbers they've driven for Audi and others. Jury is still out for me on this whole Second Life phenomena, and marketing to it, though.

Down the Rabbit Hole: "He woke up in a pool of sweat, with bruises on his arms, his ankle badly swollen. He'd had another terrifying blackout, the kind he'd been experiencing ever since he began beta-testing Sega's soon-to-be-released ESPN NFL Football 2K4 video game. Now his neighbor was banging on his front door: 'My wife's been crying all night! Why don't you try a move like that with me, tough guy?' One more innocent victim. No doubt he'd attacked her, too, like an animal going in for the kill. Beta-7, as the twentysomething man came to be known, could find no explanation for his horrifying behavior, unless the Sega game was somehow torquing his brain. And so Beta-7 began his desperate attempt to prevent the game's release and expose the company's conspiracy and lies. As he searched for a reason for his sudden violent surges--his compulsion to tackle perfect strangers--he found himself tracing a labyrinthine trail of evidence. He hacked into a Web site that contained medical records of twisted experiments performed on fellow gamers. He found and reconstructed shredded Sega memos that admitted the game should not be released. He even unearthed video outtakes of spokesman Warren Sapp insisting that the game would not cause violence in its players. Beta-7 spent three months searching for answers, answers that never arrived. A week after Sega released the game, Beta-7--along with his computer Beta-7 spent three months searching for answers, answers that never arrived. A week after Sega released the game, Beta-7--along with his computer and Xbox--disappeared, leaving behind only a few photographs of his ransacked apartment, uploaded to his blog by a distraught friend."

It's a dark and disturbing tale. And, of course, it's utterly bogus, a fiction engineered in a strip mall in Orlando. There, surrounded by tiki mugs and other high kitsch, Mike Monello, a hefty 37-year-old with bulbous hazel eyes, and Jim Gunshanan, a local writer he'd hired to play Beta-7 day and night, lived the charade in real-time for 90 days. The elaborate 2003 stunt was a viral marketing campaign dreamed up at Monello's postmodern production shop, now called Campfire, and ESPN's ad agency, Wieden+Kennedy, to help their client mount a challenge to Electronic Arts' (NASDAQ:ERTS) Madden NFL, the most popular sports video game on the market. By creating a pseudo-controversy among gamers about the new Sega release, they figured, they might be able to carve off a little name recognition and jump-start sales.

Monello and his partners at Campfire, Gregg Hale and Steve Wax, have become the high-wire stuntmen of viral marketing. In the past few years, the tiny outfit with offices in Orlando and New York has been the invisible force behind the country's most groundbreaking viral campaigns--nonlinear, interactive advertising that starts out niche and then metastasizes. Besides "Beta-7," their work includes Audi's "The Art of the Heist," as well as campaigns for Levi's, Sharp, Hewlett-Packard, and MSN. And now the Campfire trio is trying to spread a bug for its latest client, Pontiac. story continues here.

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