Not known for its dark marketing, McDonald’s is more a try-our-new-salad, get-your-Shrek-action-figure, look-at-our-dollar-menu sort of place.
For that reason, gamers were surprised to learn that McDonald’s was the sponsor of an enigmatic Olympic-themed online game called The Lost Ring, introduced last month. Nothing about the game was branded McDonald’s, and the game’s websites — mysterious and hip, like Lost mixed with The Blair Witch Project — were a far cry from the Golden Arches.
Internet intrigue: (left) Players need to unravel several mysterious characters; the game is rich in multimedia content.
“The Olympics in Beijing are a very big event for us, and we have a lot of different types of activation, with The Lost Ring being the most creative,” says Mary Dillon, McDonald’s global chief marketing officer. “Our goal is really about strengthening our bond with the global youth culture.”
The Lost Ring is part of a gaming genre called alternate-reality games (ARG) that blend online and offline clues and rely on players collaborating to solve puzzles.
The game began with 50 bloggers receiving packages with an Olympic-themed poster and a clue pointing them to TheLostRing.com. The site presented a dramatic trailer, replete with sci-fi lighting and a narrator with a British-accented baritone speaking over scenes of a woman waking up in a field with Trovu la ringon perditan — an Esperanto phrase — tattooed on her arm. Within a day or two, as players searched for clues, they found the terms of service on the website, which revealed that McDonald’s, in partnership with the International Olympic Committee, was behind the game.
“I think finding out that it was McDonald’s was kind of a big shock for everyone,” says Geoff May, a player in Ontario who founded a website (www.olympics.wikibruce.com) on the game. “Obviously it’s McDonald’s, and not everyone likes them,” he says. “Personally, I don’t mind as long as we don’t get products forced down our throat. If we’re getting McDonald’s meals sold by characters, it’s going to be hard to suspend our disbelief.”
That’s part of the reason McDonald’s has remained behind the curtain thus far. A successful alternate-reality game relies on the players’ continuing interest. “If an ARG is too clearly commercial, the gamers will not want to engage,” says Tracy Tuten, an associate professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, who studies new media marketing tools. “It’s very important that the branding is not obvious.”
McDonald’s has been careful to reflect that, Dillon says. “Above all, we want to be credible, authentic and respectful to this new audience,” she says.
When released in early March, the game was available in seven languages. Ten characters provide clues through YouTube videos, blogs, Flickr photos and Twitter updates. Online clues are supplemented by offline ones: a couple of weeks back, players found documents in a Tokyo mailbox and a bookstore fireplace in Johannesburg.
The clues have helped players deduce the outline of the game, which centres on a lost Olympic sport that one plays blindfolded.
McDonald’s says the game had attracted 150,000 players so far, with 70% of traffic from outside the US.
The game is scheduled to run through 24 August, the Olympics closing ceremony. “I think the players will be very happy to discover that there is a real world pay-off to their alternate-reality heroics,” McGonigal says. She was cryptic about what that pay-off would be, though she hinted that the city of Beijing might be involved.
©2008/The New York Times
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