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HBO Sinks Its Teeth Into 'True Blood’ Campaign

HBO this month officially began on-air promotion for its upcoming vampire series True Blood with the debut of a mockumentary about the living dead. But for many horror fans, word of the new series is old news.

That’s because HBO, with independent marketing company Campfire (the firm that built pre-release buzz for The Blair Witch Project), has been promoting the show for the past two months through a multimedia viral campaign.

While advertising executives praised HBO for its innovative approach to marketing the series — in which a serum that simulates blood allows vampires to walk among the living — they also cautioned about potential backlash from viewers who might feel duped by the fake ad campaign. It includes bogus ads for a “Tru Blood” drink and faux vampire Web sites.

“It’s an inventive move, particularly when you’re trying to get the word out on a new show,” said Katz Television Media Group vice president and director of programming Bill Carroll. “For HBO, it’s finding that balance between, 'Oh my goodness, you’re wasting my time,’ or 'Oh my goodness, you’ve given me something intriguing.’ ”

For HBO, the campaign is all having fun while promoting the Alan Ball-produced series.

“We are trying to create an alternate reality and have some fun,” said Zach Enterlin, vice president of advertising and promotions. “We’re not trying to hit someone over the head with HBO branding, but it’s that subtle wink that they can get a hold of and come along with us for the ride.”

The network initially launched its pre-premiere blitz for the series in May by reaching out to fans of the vampire and horror genres by mailing letters written in dead languages and creating Web sites chronicling the emergence of a serum that would quench vampires’ thirst for blood. HBO even sent fake samples of the Tru Blood serum to curious consumers.

“There’s a core audience for us to engage with — a broad group of genre fans, whether its vampire, gamers, horror, fantasy or comic book fans — that are passionate, really engaged and very active online,” Enterlin said. “There are thousands of sites and blogs dedicated to those genres, so it became a real great fit and a place to cultivate this audience and hopefully create some evangelists for the show.”

Weeks later, the network launched the microsite, the main site for all the pre-launch storylines and activities. The site features in-story text and video postings, as well as an active member area for consumer interaction and comments.

While the site has yet to receive heavy promotion on HBO, Enterlin said it’s already generated 500,000 unique users and 3 million page views.

By June, the network began rolling out print ads and billboards touting the existence of the fictional Tru Blood product and driving traffic to a Web site.

The ads, which feature clever taglines such as “Friends Don’t Let Friends Drink Friends” and “Real Blood Is For Suckers,” were created to simulate the launch of an existing beverage and feature no ties to the actual HBO series, other than a small line at the bottom of the ad that reads “HBO reminds vampires to drink responsibly.”

Enterlin said Ball, who also produced HBO’s Six Feet Under, gave HBO creative license to build a whole alternative reality storyline that Enterlin believes will help viewers become familiar with the series in advance of its Sept. 7 debut.

“When we knew True Blood was in production, we quickly realized as marketers that there’s some really exciting opportunities here to essentially immerse viewers into the True Blood world,” he said. “In this case, Alan Ball wanted to set the stage in advance, so when you get to episode one, there’s a deeper engagement.”

Daniel Wolfe, president and creative director for ad agency Wolfe/Doyle, agreed that the vampire-horror aspect of the series created tremendous fertile ground for creativity, but expressed concern that some consumers could be put off by what they might perceive as a bait-and-switch marketing campaign.

Wolfe pointed to other non-network branded marketing campaigns such as Cartoon Network’s infamous promotion for its Aqua Teen Hunger Force movie in Feb. 2007 to illustrate how such campaigns can backfire on a network.

As part of an Aqua Teen stunt, local artists put light boards bearing the image of a “Mooninite” character from the series around major transit points in the Boston area. Authorities mistook the signage for terrorism devices, prompting local police and federal authorities to shut down highways and waterways.

HBO has also used fake ads to promote its original shows before, having run spots for faux perfume and male sexual performance products last year on its Web site and on YouTube as part of a promotion for Big Love.

“People are so inundated with advertising that sometimes you have to come up and do a sneak attack, and I think this True Blood effectively does that,” Wolfe said. “You’re not going to please all the people all the time, and I think a lot of people will think it’s clever, and lot of people will feel they were hoodwinked.”

But Enterlin said consumers are sophisticated enough to know what’s real and what’s not.

“It’s really difficult to fool somebody — viewers and fans are so sophisticated and engaged these days that we’re not going to really fool anybody,” he said. “The approach we’ve taken is that we want to bring someone along on this entertaining ride we’re taking, and we’re not trying to mislead them that this is anything but a television show and an HBO show.”

Enterlin said one of the first forum threads created by visitors to referred to the television show. “We knew right off that some of the participants and consumers acknowledged that it was a TV show, but they were interested enough in the marketing and promotional content that they were fine with it,” he said.

HBO two weeks ago began running ads on its air for vampire-focused products, including a vampire/human dating service. The network is also airing a mockumentary covering the evolving vampire story.

HBO On Demand recently added weekly video spots updating viewers on the happenings from

HBO was scheduled last week to launch a comic book based on the at the Comic-Con convention in San Diego. The network this week plans to launch a “trueblood” core area as part of that will feature episode guides, behind-the-scenes features, downloads and community boards.

Enterlin would not put a price tag on the overall campaign, but said he hopes it pays off in September and beyond.

“We hope that they’ll be engaged enough by the promotional content that they’ll stay on the ride with us,” he said.

R. Thomas Umstead
R. Thomas Umstead

R. Thomas Umstead serves as senior content producer, programming for Multichannel News, Broadcasting + Cable and Next TV. During his more than 30-year career as a print and online journalist, Umstead has written articles on a variety of subjects ranging from TV technology, marketing and sports production to content distribution and development. He has provided expert commentary on television issues and trends for such TV, print, radio and streaming outlets as Fox News, CNBC, the Today show, USA Today, The New York Times and National Public Radio. Umstead has also filmed, produced and edited more than 100 original video interviews, profiles and news reports featuring key cable television executives as well as entertainers and celebrity personalities.