By STEPHANIE CLIFFORD - The New York Times
Published: April 1, 2008
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.
Ariadne, another character in The Lost Ring. The game is part of McDonald’s marketing for the Olympic Games in Beijing.
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 Web sites — mysterious and hip, like “Lost” mixed with “The Blair Witch Project”— were a far cry from the golden arches.
“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,” said 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 that blend online and offline clues and rely on players collaborating to solve the puzzles.
While corporate sponsorship of these games is common — a popular one called The Beast was created by Microsoft for the Warner Brothers film “A.I.: Artificial Intelligence” — this is McDonald’s first foray into the genre.
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 Web site, 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,” said Geoff May, a player in Ontario who founded a Web site (olympics.wikibruce.com) on the game. “Obviously it’s McDonald’s, and not everyone likes them,” he said. “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 A.R.G. is too clearly corporate or commercial, the gamers will not want to engage,” said Tracy Tuten, an associate professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, who studies new-media marketing tools. “It’s very important that the game be written in a way where the branding is not obvious.”
McDonald’s has been careful to reflect that, Ms. Dillon said. “Above all, we want to be credible, authentic and respectful to this new audience,” she said.
With that in mind, development of the game was given to AKQA, a San Francisco marketing agency, and Jane McGonigal, a game developer.
When released in early March, the game was available in seven languages. Ten characters provide clues via YouTube videos, blogs, Flickr photos and Twitter updates. Online clues are supplemented by offline ones: last week, 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 centers on a lost Olympic sport that one plays blindfolded. Soon, Ms. McGonigal said, players will be asked to participate in the sport in the real world.
The game is scheduled to run through Aug. 24, the Olympics closing ceremony. “I think the players will be very happy to discover that around the closing ceremonies, there is a real-world payoff to their alternate-reality heroics,” Ms. McGonigal said. She was, in keeping with the game’s spirit, cryptic about what that payoff would be, though she hinted that the city of Beijing might be involved.
McDonald’s would not disclose the cost of the campaign, though Ms. Dillon said that “in the context of the total Olympics, it’s just a fraction of what we’re doing.” As for measuring the return on the company’s investment, Ms. Dillon said she saw it as more of a learning experience. “You can’t put an R.O.I. on this,” she said.
McDonald’s said the game had attracted 150,000 players so far, with 70 percent of traffic from outside the United States.
Both the quiet sponsorship and the game itself are unusual for McDonald’s. But the company does aim for the youth market, which overlaps neatly with the fan base for alternate-reality games. If those gamers develop new respect for McDonald’s, it would be a marketing coup.
“The players appreciate that they got this good experience for free,” said Sean C. Stacey, the founder of the gaming fan site Unfiction. “That tends to create a stronger bond between the player and the brand than having a straight advertisement.”