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Hidden ASCII Art Generates Buzz For Dante’s Inferno

Dante's Inferno ASCII Art

When the team behind the Dante’s Inferno video game hid ASCII art in the source code of many popular websites and then waited for that art to get discovered, they were taking a huge risk, but sometimes big rewards can only come to those that are willing to take equally big risks. The risk was mitigated by the fact that their campaign was innovative and well targeted, but there was still the chance that their idea was going to fall flat, or that consumers were not going to be receptive to the idea of hunting for what essentially boils down to fancy looking banner ads.

Hell Is Closer Than You Think

Before we dive into the campaign however, let’s do a quick history lesson: ASCII art, or art made with text, has been around since the early days of the computer. Back when printers weren’t able to make graphics, someone figured out that various characters could be combined to simulate them instead, and ASCII art was born. Because of its lengthy history and quirky nature, ASCII art has remained popular in the geek crowd for many years, and coders are even known to hide ASCII art in the source code of their websites so that other geeks will stumble across it and discover the hidden art while looking under the hood of another coder’s site. This type of ‘hidden reward’ is also found in video games, where coders will hide objects or inside jokes in hard to reach places or behind lengthy button combinations in what’s affectionately referred to as an Easter Egg. The goal for both is to reward users that dig into a website or explore in a video game beyond what the typical user would do, so that whether it’s hidden code in a website or a hidden Easter Egg in a video game, those that discover it feel like they have earned access to some sort of exclusive content or reward.

With that history lesson out of the way, lets look at how Dante’s Inferno combined the geek’s love of ASCII art with the gamer’s love of Easter Eggs into a unique and innovative ad campaign that generated a ton of buzz for their upcoming release.

Dante's Inferno ASCII Art - Death

The campaign featured six pieces of ASCII art that were hidden in the source code of various video game and technology websites. One of the first of these sites to get discovered was Digg (by Brent Csutoras) with the initial discovery leading to a large scale search that uncovered a number of other pieces of art scattered across the Internet in places like IGN, GameSpot, Daily Motion, Games Radar, and WWE. One site, Kotaku, even discovered art hidden in their own source code after a reader tipped them off to the campaign, which the editors claimed to have no knowledge of. In addition to the art itself, each hidden ‘ad’ also contained a URL and a password to a secret site, and by collecting all six of these passwords, users could visit that website and unlock a special bundle of content that included music, wallpapers, posters, concept art and more from the upcoming game.

Reap Your Earthly Rewards

What’s interesting about this campaign is that it was very risky, since the ads could have sat unnoticed for a lengthy period of time before being discovered, and even then, they would have to be almost exclusively passed around by word of mouth, since there is no way to view them except by manually selecting to view the source code of a website. Thus, the campaign would have been dead in the water if it had not generated the buzz that its creators were hoping for. In addition, there is no way to track who views the source code of a website or the traffic generated from those views, except through a very rudimentary URL tracking system that uses custom URLs to track the source of visits. Thus, the only way to judge the results of this campaign is to track how many users download the special bundle, and what kind of buzz the campaign generates. (It’s interesting to note that Dante’s Inferno decided not to track what sites users were grabbing their codes from, since the same URL was used across all sites, and secret codes were shared among sites as well.) Another challenge is that while bundle downloads do indicate the total number of people exposed to the campaign, they can’t differentiate between a user that actually viewed the ASCII art in the source code of a website, and a user that simply found or was given the six passwords on a gaming forum or other less involved medium and then used them to unlock the bundle.

The result of these challenges is that for a campaign like this to work well, it has to be used for the right product at the right time and with just enough luck thrown in to capture the interest of the right audience long enough to make an impression. Judging by the blog reactions and user comments about the campaign however, this seems to have struck just that balance, with comments ranging from “I am pretty impressed by this campaign” and “it is an advertising campaign and quite a clever one if I must say so myself” to “The latest stunt is eerie, and gets bonus points for both creativity and giving the fans some fun bonuses.” Even Digg’s Chas Edwards, Digg Publisher and Chief Revenue Officer was quoted as saying, “Since Digg’s early days, ASCII art has been ingrained in our site’s culture. We’re thrilled with the opportunity presented by our partnership with Electronic Arts and the Dante’s Inferno team — incorporating ASCII art into advertising on Digg, while providing the 40 million users in the Digg Community first access to the promotion code.”


Hiding an ad in the source code of a website is a great example of a company that’s willing to think outside the banner, but does the success of the Dante’s Inferno campaign mean that hidden ASCII art is a viable option for other ad campaigns as well? In this case, I don’t think that you could duplicate the results of this campaign in the near term, as the success was due in such large part to the combination of right place, right time to the right audience for the right product. However, if enough time goes by and users once again forget about a company’s ability to hide ads in places as remote as the source code of a website, I think we could see another campaign or two reach a similar level of success by using a similar idea.

So why can’t companies just start hiding ads in the source code of all of their favorite websites and then wait for people to find them?

  1. There is a very small percentage of people that even know how to view the source code of a website, and even then, it’s not a guarantee that they will like ASCII art.
  2. Much of the buzz around the Dante’s Inferno campaign was driven by the novelty of the idea, so each subsequent implementation will have substantially less buzz as people get accustomed to seeing ads hidden in source code.
  3. If people don’t care enough about a product to go searching for hidden art with secret codes and mystery websites in exchange for exclusive content, then the campaign will never get seen by more than a handful of consumers who accidentally stumble across it.

The take away from this campaign is that it’s important to always keep your eyes open for new and innovative ideas, and to be willing to take a risk on a new format that might drive a lot of interest in a product, even if that format can’t be directly tied to traffic or sales. In addition, because the lack of direct tracking means you will never know the exact impact of a risky or non-conventional campaign, you must find a new way of defining your reward (besides just traffic and clicks) so that you will know if the risks were worth it, and if the campaign was a success.

The Good:

  • Unique and innovative campaign generated a massive amount of buzz.
  • Exclusive content motivated users to seek out additional pieces of hidden art and pass along the campaign to others.

The Bad:

  • Results would be difficult to duplicate, as much of the buzz was driven by how innovative the idea was.
  • Limited tracking means the success of the campaign is based on a single number (in this case, bundle downloads) and that the awareness generated by the ads themselves, separate from clicks, was all but impossible to track.

The Future:

  • Unique ad formats that reward the viewer are sought out by consumers, rather than needing to be forced upon them.

Hell Is Nigh

Never Hide Films Are Viral Successes For Ray-Ban

Never Hide Films

UPDATE: On January 12, 2010, Ray-Ban released another video in their ‘Never Hide Films’ series showing a guy getting a pair of Wayfarer sunglasses tattooed on his face. (The video, called ‘Guy Has Glasses Tattooed On His Face’, is shown below.) Once again the video was picked up by a number of very popular blogs and sites, and quickly spread throughout the internet, fueled by ‘Real vs. Fake’ discussions (it’s fake) and amassing nearly 500,000 views in just two days. By keeping their finger on the pulse of what’s cool, unique and attention grabbing, Ray-Ban has turned their video series into a viral video factory, and now has the track record to prove it.

To help promote their line of sunglasses, Ray-Ban created a series of viral videos called Never Hide Films. With 11 total videos to date, they’ve seen multi-million view successes, and four-digit failures, so it’s an interesting look at what works well as an online viral video, and what doesn’t.

Their most recent video, released just two days ago, is called “Cow Gives Birth To A Dude”, and has already been viewed more than 150,000 times:

This video is pure shock and awe, and the pull-no-punches approach works well on a site like YouTube, where viewers have seen just about everything done a thousand times over and have become numb to even relatively shocking videos, so that it takes something truly unique to grab their attention. Part of this video’s success is due to the fact that Never Hide Films has an established channel on YouTube with more than 1,400 subscribers, but it’s also due in large part to the fact that when you view the video, you’re left with a feeling of “WTF?” (as evidenced by a majority of the comments left on the video saying just that) and you know that if you send it to a friend, they will have that same feeling as well. It becomes a tool that viewers can use to surprise and shock their friends, and they pass it along with that goal in mind.

The second video, and their most popular video to date, is called “Guy Catches Glasses With Face”, and has received nearly four million views in just over a year. What made this video a success was that it used an existing YouTube meme (amazing and unbelievable actions performed over and over again with an increasing difficulty, such as long basketball shots, tossing cans into a recycling bin from a long distance, or complicated and multi-step beer pong shots) but did so in a very fluid and believable way. This was also one of their first films, so it spurred a lot of discussion about whether or not the video was real or fake, and one YouTube user even posted an elaborate, shot by shot explanation of how the video was made:

Even after it was shown to be fake however, the quality and the uniqueness of the idea ensured that people continue to watch it and share it with others.

The third video was a sequel to the “Guy Catches Glasses With Face” video, called “Bobbing For Glasses”, and it’s a great example of how you can take the success from one video and transfer it into the next. The idea is very similar to the first video, as an amazing and unbelievable action is repeated over and over again, but this time, they were able to link their face catching video to the glasses bobbing video using YouTube’s built-in video reply feature, as well as their editable description area, thus sending anyone that was interested in the face catching video over to the glasses bobbing video as well.

Lastly, their second most popular video, called “Bikini Body Builder Vs. Rubik’s Cube” was a precursor to the cow video in that it was very much designed to shock and awe, relying on pure absurdity to draw in viewers. At just over a minute long, it’s also long enough to establish itself as a strange and unusual video that’s willing to really dive into a concept, but short enough to grab someone’s attention, reward them for watching the entire thing, and then move them on to the next video in the Never Hide Films series:

This video also shows the power of frequently used YouTube keywords, such as Bikini, Body Builder and Rubik’s Cube, as each of those topics has its own community of videos within YouTube that results in a lot of search traffic and tie-ins to related videos.

Though Ray-Ban’s Never Hide Films have not always been successes, they’re willing to take a risk and put unique and interesting content out there to see what sticks, and then once they have a success on their hands, they leverage that success to make their next video successful as well, thus continuing to virally grow their community.

The Good:

  • Unique and interesting videos draw in a large and varied audience.
  • Success from one video transfers to the next through built-in tools that YouTube provides.
  • Tapping into an existing meme ensures that the videos become part of an established group of popular content.
  • Shock-and-awe approach helps the videos stand out from the crowd.
  • Willingness to take a risk results in some videos that aren’t successful, but larger successes when a video does resonate well within the YouTube community.

The Bad:

  • Never Hide Films created their own Digg account to promote the films through that channel, but did not put enough time or effort into that account to make the submissions a success, resulting in a missed opportunity for additional views.
  • The videos are buried inside of Ray-Bans’ Flash website rather than being featured on their own URL, eliminating any social networking or social bookmarking potential.
  • Branding is too subtle and often goes unnoticed, as the videos could have featured a post-roll ad without a huge loss in authenticity once the initial ‘real or fake’ debates ended.
  • Low quality videos make it difficult to see many of the effects clearly.

The Future:

  • Viral videos push the boundaries of decency in an effort to stand out from the crowd, resulting in a series of hits and misses that need to be optimized once the community finds a video that it likes.