True Blood: When Marketing Goes For the Jugular

This June, HBO will launch the second season of True Blood, a soap opera featuring psychics, vampires, and shape-shifters based on The Southern Vampire Mysteries series by Charlaine Harris. The story takes place in a world where vampires have discovered a synthetic beverage that can slake their thirst for blood. No longer a threat to humans, many vampires reveal themselves to the public, form advocacy groups, and begin dating human waitresses. Set in rural Louisiana, the vampires’ struggle against prejudice carries strong echoes of the civil rights movement.

Last year’s season drew an average audience of 7.8 million viewers per episode. This was due, at least in part, to one of the most bizarre marketing campaigns in history.

HBO hired an agency called CampFire NYC to use a technique known as “viral marketing.” The strategy was to pique interest in True Blood by deliberately confusing fact and fiction. This was primarily done online, where Web sites such as TruBeverage.com were created, complete with product descriptions of various synthetic blood types. Vampire profiles began to appear on Myspace, Facebook, and livejournal complete with fake news and fake discussions on how Tru Blood would affect the vampire political structure. YouTube clips began to circulate in which actors in fangs snarled into webcams that the hackers who had found their secret vampire Web sites would pay.

Viral marketing even spread to the offline world. Outdoor ads for Tru Blood went up in some cities and vending machines were even modified to sell the mysterious substance (strangely, the machines were always sold out.) There are even sightings (or rumors of sightings) of Tru Blood delivery trucks.

With the success of the first season, HBO has ratcheted up the viral marketing. BloodCopy, a blog created last summer, has been expanded. The blog now features ads by real companies promoting fictional products. Much like Tru Blood, the products advertised on Bloodcopy are “marketed” to fictional vampires. A Geico ad exclaims that, “Even vampires can save 15%.” Harley Davidson advertises a fictional motorcycle to vampires with the tagline “Outrun the sun.” Occasionally, existing products are endorsed, but from the perspective of a fictional vampire. It is rumored that more of these ads are scheduled to appear in major media outlets.

And what is the public response to this? Judging by the posts on Bloodcopy, it would seem to range from mild annoyance to smoldering rage. Several posters state that they are not amused and vow never to watch True Blood. A similar outrage followed Columbia Broadcasting’s adaptation of The War of the Worlds on Halloween, 1938 (the radio show that told H.G. Wells’ story of a Martian invasion through a series of phony news broadcasts.)

The blogosphere was also disrupted when BloodCopy approached Gawker Media, a network of commercial blogs. Gawker’s marketing department agreed to feature posts from the viral marketing campaign on the company’s blogs—a move that thoroughly irritated much of Gawker’s editorial staff. The campaign played this arrangement to the hilt, and posted that BloodCopy had been purchased by Gawker Media. CampFireNYC (the masterminds behind the ruse) then sent out an email inviting people to a rooftop party celebrating the merger. The bottom of the invitation states that, “Tru Blood will be served. Kindly refrain from wearing silver jewelry.” This caused BusinessInsider to report that BloodCopy had actually been acquired by Gawker Media. In a retraction, Nicholas Carlson wrote that the viral marketing campaign had “crossed a line.”

HBO and Gawker’s marketing department have defended their actions by pointing out that vampires are not real. Chris Batty of Gawker said he was surprised so many people “took this at face value.” A representative from HBO commented, “Considering that it’s clearly stated that a vampire is writing this blog, the faux aspect of it really isn’t hidden.”

The problem with this defense is that there is a community of self-identified vampires, which existed long before Charlaine Harris wrote her first vampire novel (and many vampires actually do write blogs). Furthermore, HBO is aware of this community, and attempted to bring it into the viral marketing campaign. During my research for Vampires Today: The Truth About Modern Vampires, I was shown a press release promoting True Blood that was sent from HBO media relations to a vampire house. The vampires wisely chose to ignore it rather than add to the confusion. The real vampire community (as this group has come to collectively refer to itself) is in the strange position of experiencing an unprecedented level of media attention, even as they are often pejoratively characterized as being unable to discern media from reality.

Don Rimer, a former police officer and “occult crimes expert” recently claimed that the Twilight novels by Stephanie Meyer have caused teenagers to become delusional and murderous. So at the same time viral marketing is vigorously blending fact with fiction, there is a concern that Americans lack the ability to distinguish vampire novels from reality.

Is the viral marketing campaign unethical? Certainly the claim that “vampires are not real” is a poor defense for such an elaborate ruse. This position invokes a worldview in which reality consists only of what can be empirically proven to exist, and that anyone who believes otherwise is foolish or somehow deserves to be deceived.

While this worldview has strong rhetorical value, we know that few people actually subscribe to it. According to a recent Pew Forum survey, 79% of Americans “mostly or completely” believe in the reality of miracles. 68% mostly or completely believe that angels and demons are active in the world. Popular or extra-ecclesiastical beliefs, such as the idea that certain people require blood or energy to sustain their health are more vulnerable to ridicule than tenets of organized religion like the existence of God, heaven, and hell.

But suppose HBO launched a miniseries based on The Left Behind books by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins. Would they dare to promote the show through a blog featuring phony news about missing persons and the growing power of the United Nations? Would they send press releases to dispensationalist Christian groups? Of course not. It has always been true that “art imitates life and life imitates art,” but those who blur the line between fact and fiction should remember that empirical knowledge comprises only a small portion of what the average person believes.

Joseph Laycock is an assistant professor of religious studies at Texas State University. His forthcoming books include The Seer of Bayside: Veronica Lueken and the Struggle for Catholic Tradition (Oxford University Press, 2014) and Dangerous Games: What the Moral Panic Over Role-Playing Games Says About Religion, Play, and Imagined Worlds (University of California Press, 2015).