'Next' up on the Web: faux hoax marketing

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O.J. Simpson wasn't the only notable nexus between the book industry and the larger media world recently linked by HarperCollins Publishers.

The News Corp.-owned imprint may have backtracked on its O.J. extravaganza, but it continues to advance an even more interesting foray into the world of interactive marketing.

A mysterious new entity called Nextgencode surfaced on the Internet a few weeks ago. Head over to YouTube and search for that term, and you'll find two videos dressed up as commercials for genetically engineered blondes and forever-young canines branded as Perma-cute Puppies. Its Web site at Nextgencode.com offers a faux blog cleverly filled out with backdated posts.

But as it turns out, Nextgencode doesn't exist. It's actually a marketing scheme for Michael Crichton's new book, "Next," a near-future thriller about the implications of genetic tampering. HarperCollins is truly taking us where no postmodernist has been before: Fake ads promoting a real book with a fictional plot about cloned people.

It's a sophisticated piece of consumer intrigue that only reveals its marketing roots after clicking through to a link that reads "New Book Reveals Trade Secrets." Creating fake digital environments to plug real products in the entertainment industry is nothing new, but "Next" is instructive of what a tricky balance must be struck.

Don't call HarperCollins' plan a hoax, though. That's ascribing too much narrative depth to a transparent scheme that isn't intended to fool the doggedly curious but to coddle the easily bemused. Rather, HarperCollins' plan is more of a "faux hoax," a mystery that winks at you. Subtle enough to be interesting and transparent enough to be followed, the videos gin up interest and eventual sales.

Thus we have an old-school book publisher who realizes that all media experiences today need to be pan-media experiences. Instead of being beholden to any one format, HarperCollins is conjuring curiosity everywhere you look.

A few months ago, NBC found out that a good hoax is not an easy thing to stage. In September, the network launched an unbranded blog in support of its new series "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip," modeled on the infamous blog Defamer, called Defaker. Purporting to be written by a fan of the show, it smelled fake from miles away, and NBC pulled it days after it first hit the Web.

The problem was that NBC tried to trick the viewers into playing along, whereas the viewers would have been happy to engage had they known what was up. Everyone wants to be part of the joke.

A better application of the hoax strategy came courtesy of ABC in support of its hit series "Lost." At the end of last season, ABC aired several "fake" commercials for the Hanso Foundation, an entity from the show. Those commercials prompted viewers to call a 1-800 number and engage in a five-month-long scavenger hunt online.

To the extent that ABC's and HarperCollins' plans work -- ABC is still examining the results; the fake HarperCollins ads have only received a few hundred views on YouTube -- they expose their products to people who might not have seen them otherwise. And once the method is established, these types of online experiences also provide additional inventory and incentive for advertisers.

A clever Web hoax is the kind of ancillary content that can be even more useful and engaging than the original content itself.
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