New approaches used to reach the masses

Message bottles on the beach. Billboards for a fictional airline. Conspiracy theories, alternate-reality games, even ironic episode re-enactments using action figures — anything to help viewers find “Lost.”

“It’s a different kind of show, and it needed a different kind of marketing,” says Michael Benson, who with Marla Provencio forms ABC’s tandem of exec VPs of marketing. For the show’s 2004 launch, ABC topper Stephen McPherson “really pushed us,” Benson says, “to create a mystery around the program since the core essence of the program is the ultimate mystery.”

Head and heart went hand in hand as the pair plotted how to hype a show that was unlike anything seen before. Some viral elements grew directly from “Lost” storylines, like the message bottles dropped on East and West Coast beaches before the show aired, or the Oceanic Airline website built to look like the real thing.

“We liked the idea that ‘Lost’ is taking place in the real world,” Benson says, “that viewers want to believe there really are people lost on an island somewhere.”

ABC marketing had to keep viewers hooked. The Oceanic Web page idea morphed into a competing site claiming a conspiracy behind the plane crash; Find815.com was nominated for an interactive Emmy. The network posted Oceanic billboards in several international cities connected to series characters, then “vandalized” them with conspiracy claims.

The island’s fictional Dharma Initiative recruited new workers through on-air spots and online pages, even setting up shop at Comic-Con. The novel “Bad Twin,” written by a “passenger” on the downed flight, was published without reference to the series. One brainstorm, the Promax Award-winning “Lost Experience” alternate-reality game, became almost too successful: Players proved so enthusiastic at deciphering clues that developers couldn’t provide new ones quickly enough.

ABC marketers even pounced on grumblings about the show’s plot complexity, creating “pop-up” repeat telecasts using onscreen factoids “to try to demystify it a little,” Benson says. It’s all designed to make “Lost” such a rich experience that viewers want more at the show’s announced 2010 conclusion after six seasons.

“It’s such a strong franchise, we want it to live beyond the finale,” says Provencio. In true “Lost” fashion, Benson adds cryptically, “Who knows? ‘Lost’ may come back, we don’t know, in another form. We’re here to grow it.”

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