So here's what happened.I was at the airport waiting for my flight home from CES — exhausted, sick, and not a little partied out from a week in Vegas. Delirious, in other words. And as I waited to board, I watched and re-watched the latest video from our outstanding video team, in which 257 gadgets fly by in just three minutes, with Dieter narrating from "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction."
This is awesome, I thought. This is like a commercial for everything nerdy and wonderful and ambitious about The Verge. So naturally I decided to email Jim Bankoff, the CEO of our company, and ask him to run the video as a Super Bowl ad.
In retrospect, I probably should have waited until the majority of my brain function had returned before asking for 4.5 million dollars, but, um, yolo. Thankfully, our head of marketing Jon Hunt identified the fragments of a good idea in the mental wreckage I had sent along, and he suggested that we make a real ad but only buy it in a small market — that way we could tell everyone we'd run a Super Bowl ad, but spend far less money. When he told me that a 30-second ad during the first quarter of the game only cost $700 in Helena, Montana, I knew we were in. (Other options: Tulsa, Oklahoma, for $12,500; Fairbanks, Alaska, for $3,000; and Missoula, Montana, for $2,200.)
The next step was the ad — we decided against running the 257 Gadgets video because it was too heady and hard to cut down to a believable 30 seconds, so we needed something else, and it needed to be believable and kind of crazy. We had an unused pilot for a show called Futureworld lying on the shelf, so we decided to update it with a bunch of new shots, and I rewrote the voiceover to be as generically soaring as possible. We hired a professional voiceover artist to come in and lend the whole thing an air of corporate respectability. It took him all of 15 minutes to nail it. "That was the easiest money I've ever seen anyone make," our director John told me. The goal was to make something that worked in virtually any context; I kept joking we could show basically any logo at the end of the ad and it would work. Coca-Cola. MasterCard. GE. Chevy. The Verge. Cheez-Its. "That was the easiest money I've ever seen anyone make." Then — and this is where the wheels really started to wobble and I should have known they would come right off the bus — I asked John to move the shot of Ross crying in the Gear VR to sync up with the voiceover saying "and even how we die." We were cracking up laughing when we did it — but I didn't realize that we'd sent the whole thing so far over the top that it actually started to look like we were serious.
When the ad leaked, I assumed everyone would realize it was fake from the get-go — it just doesn't make any sense. But everyone took it seriously, and we were off and running. The plan all along was to reveal the truth in stages: first we'd confirm that we bought a Super Bowl ad, then we'd reveal that it was a "regional buy," and then we'd let it slip that it was airing in Helena for $700. This was supposed to take a few days, but instead it spiraled completely out of control in just a few hours, resulting in Adweek, Slate, The Wall Street Journal, and The New York Times articles. Sam Biddle Biddled all over the place. We'd provided so little information when the ad first hit our RSS feed that the media echo chamber had a scaffolding on which to build an elaborate and unchecked narrative about venture-backed media startups, the tech bubble, materialism in an age of ephemerality, upstart teens not having Respect For Institutions, the undying hype cycle that will consume us all, and various other emotions, mostly about Ross crying in a VR headset.
Here Lies Ross, Who Cried Real Tears In A Virtual Reality Seriously, I'm pretty sure Ross will forever be known as the Crying VR Guy. It will be on his tombstone. Here Lies Ross, Who Cried Real Tears In A Virtual Reality. You should watch the actual video that scene is in; it's so good.
But eventually we came clean, and most people weren't mad — it was a good-natured prank, and we had been careful to never actually lie. It was just some fun for an afternoon on Twitter and in the media blogs. There was only one thing left to take care of: the ad was still going to run during the Super Bowl in Helena. Here's how you get an ad on Helena's KTVH after you've sent in your $700: you log into an FTP server and upload your choice of AVI, MOV, MPEG 2, or H.264 files. You can send them an HD file, but they prefer 720x480, because they still broadcast in SD. Then you do nothing. You wait for the TV people to do TV things. I had to know how this was all going to go down. So enterprising young reporter Sydne Cook hit Helena's local Buffalo Wild Wings to record it when it aired, and then see what people thought. It was weird to watch the game in New York and know that The Verge was being advertised in Montana; the internet makes it seem like all media is a global phenomenon, but television is still intensely local. At 6:50PM, the 25,000 people of Helena, Montana, saw something that none of the 100 million other people watching the Super Bowl saw. That's pretty wild. The 25,000 people of Helena saw something that none of the 100 million other people watching the Super Bowl sawTurns out The Verge is... not yet big in Montana.
"I didn't know what the commercial was about," said one young man with an Android phone. "But after watching it I am really curious about the company." That's... sort of good? "The commercial was really innovative," said 21-year-old Jordy Blaine, who has an iPhone. That's nice. "Seeing the commercial made me want to download the app onto my phone." A crushing blow to the open web. Somewhere Dieter's heart is breaking into a million pieces. But wait! "I really want to go to that website now," said 20-year-old iPhone owner Eileen Heilman. Maybe the web will never die.
"I've heard of The Verge, but I definitely want to find out more after watching the commercial." Stay-at-home mom with a Windows Phone. Touchdown. We are everywhere. We'd have more, but eventually Sydne got kicked out of the bar — the manager didn't understand why she was talking to everyone about a website.