Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Exploding the possibilities: Digital technology goes inside out with HBO's Voyeur

Sometimes it takes a more traditional media to provide the impetus, platform, and overall support for a truly innovative new use of technology. A great example of this is HBO’s new program Voyeur, which showcases the interior lives of a variety of urban people. It’s not even fair to call it a program, as the entire project is a multimedia marketing campaign based around a series of stories embedded in a variety of settings, including web pages, YouTube videos, blogs, social media, and other digital sites. The centerpiece – and the most exciting part for digital signage developers – is a projection onto the side of an apartment building (Ludlow and Browne) in New York, which appears to cut away the exterior wall of eight of the apartments for streetside viewing. Passersby can watch what’s happening in any one of the “stories,” including people making dinner, couples fighting, painters renovating, and hipsters partying. Although there are at least four other Voyeur projection sites in New York, the size, three dimensionality, and complexity of the Ludlow and Browne apartments are impossible to ignore.

Not surprisingly, BBDO picked up two Grand Prix awards for promotion at the Cannes International Advertising Festival this week, as well as prior awards for the website and video executions. While the digital technology is impressive, it’s also worth noting that this campaign exists across multiple media, a fact that the judges noted in their comments. Aside from the fact that the technology and the actual campaign work on so many levels, engaging the viewer and engendering conversations among everyone who sees it, there are lessons to be learned about how to construct a truly innovative and successful digital media project.

First, the theme of the campaign can be summarized in a single sentence: “Do you like to watch?” This is what’s known as a deep narrative structure in human culture (yes, marketing really IS the grandchild of anthropology and literature). People tell stories and watch each other’s activities because we’re curious, to the point of invasiveness. The Voyeur scenario gives them permission to eavesdrop on lives, albeit fictional ones, with the same narrative and visual shape as in “real” life. It’s a form of street theater that hides all the artifice of fiction and production behind a three dimensional projection. The “sliced away” wall is the perfect visual device, like a child’s dollhouse with the front wall missing. It taps into longstanding cultural desires that seem transgressive, but are safely packaged by the familiar fiction of scripted video. And of course, if we like to watch Voyeur on the projection, we will eventually turn to HBO for more or similar stories.

Second, the projection itself is beautiful. Just because a digital sign is large doesn’t mean it’s aesthetically pleasing. In this case, the eight-panel setup gives a wealth of information but diffuses the overwhelming nature of such a large projection. People can focus on whatever piece interests them at the moment without losing the overall message. As one of the judges pointed out, this represents a “paradigm shift,” since “the average consumer looks at a billboard for three seconds, this thing captivates you for four minutes." The dimensionality of the projection is stunning and makes a great case for signs projected onto existing spaces rather than constructed permanently in a single site. The Cannes judges returned again and again to the notion of “outdoors,” which has been a critical concern among digital sign marketers. Does the industry have a reputation for enhancing or damaging the existing environment? With Voyeur, there’s now a large-scale model for how projections can truly enhance the urban outdoors.

Third, and probably most critical for the future of digital signage is the way this campaign crosses multiple marketing sites. Even though the projections themselves warrant a great deal of attention, they are supported by back stories, video clips, and web content that literally adds dimensionality to what we see. Like an archaeologist digging through ancient Sumerian trash heaps or a literary scholar diving into archival letters, notes, and diaries, we piece together today’s narratives through electronic media. In terms of selling digital signs, it demonstrates that companies need to be savvy about a whole host of platforms beyond their own technological niche. In a prior post, I talked about analysts who predict the death of advertising as we know it. However, as the Cannes judges point out, perhaps it’s really about redefining or eliminating categories where advertising takes place, so that “In the future you might find one medium absolutely incomplete without the overlap of another medium. It's the beginning of that, the joining of hands of different mediums together.” Ironically, the answer to HBO’s question, “do you like to watch?” is actually, “yes, and read and talk and gossip and listen, too.” The Voyeur campaign allows us to, literally, do it all.

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