a certain segment of the web population, viral marketing puzzle campaigns are a blast. The kids today like to solve the puzzles and find the ancillary sites and to put the pieces together. For me, that’s an awful lot of work to have something advertised to me, but I can see where it would be fun. Starting in the days of the AI murder mystery and the ilovebees Halo campaign, viral marketing seems to only be growing.

But now viral marketing on the web has taken a turn, and in the last couple of weeks two popular viral campaigns have proven to be… not really viral campaigns. If you believe what JJ Abrams tells Aint It Cool News, all that Ethan Haas shit has nothing to do with his 1-18-08 ‘Cloverfield’ movie.* At the same time, the Rorschach’s Journal site has metastasized, and has added… all despite having nothing at all to do with Warner Bros. All of a sudden the ‘mysterious’ nature of viral campaigns have been revealed to be a potential threat to copyright holders.

I don’t know what the Ethan Haas stuff really is, if it has nothing to do with Cloverfield – the sites are too well-designed to be a last minute cash-in, although whoever made the sites has zero problem with letting everybody think they’re tied in to Abram’s film. I’m curious as to where all of that goes, since I think the Haas viral campaign points to one of the biggest problems I find with viral campaigns: they so often end in disappointment, or have nothing to really do with the product being advertised. That was certainly the case with theAI campaign, which presented a whole murder mystery that many felt was more interesting than the actual film (don’t know if that’s true, I have no patience for this shit). On the flip side, though, was last year’s Lost viral campaign, which actually provided players with major information that would only start to make real sense at the end of the latest season. Still, most campaigns aren’t that well run, and end up going no place special.

And that’s certainly the case with the faux-Watchmen viral campaigns started by Mike Regina, a guy who previously attempted to force Warner Bros to make him the ‘official fan site’ of Superman Returns. Regina’s treading on thin, thin ice with his campaign, which links back to his marketing company and is obviously and blatantly an attempt to get hired by Warner Bros using copyrighted characters. There’s a line between writing ABOUT the Watchmen characters and writing AS the Watchmen characters, especially if you’re doing it for profit, as Regina demonstrably is. I have to wonder if the guy thought the legal implications of this one out all the way. At any rate, Regina’s campaign never can lead anywhere because he’s not affiliated with Warner Bros, so he won’t be revealing a character image or an important piece of info, since he’ll never get fed it by the studio. That viral campaign is a dead end street, and unless you have a lot of time on your hands, I can’t imagine why you would bother with it.

Regina’s site, and the Haas sites as well, point out the problem that studios will have to deal with when it comes to these campaigns. Viral campaigns have shown that the web audience wants to be marketed to in this way, but the fakes prove that this audience is savvy enough to go around the studio marketing teams and do it on their own. A good viral campaign usually SEEMS to have no connection to the studio, leaving a big door open for confusion with unlicensed campaigns. And in the long run that can lead to consumer confusion: there are many people who don’t realize that Regina’s sites are desperate money grabs, and when the sites never pan out with anything cool, those people will assume that the Watchmen movie will itself suck. On top of that, a fake viral campaign limits the studio’s ability to do their own viral campaign in the future. In a way this is the creation of anti-buzz, and while the studios can stomp on unauthorized viral campaigners like roaches (and they probably should), like roaches there are always going to be more waiting just out of site. The web tends to anarchy, and that’s exactly what’s going on here. It’ll be interesting to see in coming months and years if unauthorized viral campaigns keep cropping up. What’ll be even more interesting is seeing how these new outbreaks get handled.

* I am saying ‘if you believe’ because I think Abrams might very well lie about this as a function of the viral campaign.