November 13th, 2008
Six Flags Rolls Out Viral Game to Hype Superman Ride
By Claude Brodesser-Akner
Its Stock Plunging, Theme-Park Chain Turns to Guerrilla Marketing
Three minutes, 22 seconds.
That’s the brief, adrenaline-squirting time span in which riders of Six Flags’ “Superman: Ride of Steel” roller coaster get to scream themselves hoarse at 77 miles an hour.
But by the time a new viral marketing campaign from Six Flags wraps up, executives hope “Steel” riders will have spent several hours hyperventilating over the property—even before they strap in and drop 221 feet.
Misery at the funplex
Saddled with $2.3 billion in debt, Six Flags has little choice but to get creative (and frugal) with its marketing: An index of amusement-center and theme-park stocks compiled by Revere Research has the sector down 44.8% in the past year. But Six Flags’ stock has fallen 87% in the last year, and that’s despite third-quarter profit rising 64% to $138 million compared with the year-earlier period and revenue climbing 5% to $489 million.
And so, the world’s largest theme-park operator is embracing Hollywood-style guerrilla marketing to relaunch one of its flagship rides: It’s deploying a new, wide-ranging ARG, or alternative reality game. Typically used in the service of drumming up fan interest in motion pictures such as Warner’s “Dark Knight” and Paramount’s “Cloverfield,” or in TV shows such as Fox’s “Fringe,” an ARG is an interactive fusion of creative writing, puzzle-solving, team-building and role-playing.
Industry insiders say the “Ride of Steel” ARG campaign is the work of an old hand at viral marketing of DC Comics characters—and at running theme parks: Susan Bonds, the head of the Pasadena, Calif.-based 42 Entertainment.
Ms. Bonds did not return calls seeking comment, but insiders say the “Ride of Steel” project is clearly her handiwork: She designed the massive, international ARG for “Dark Knight.” And prior to forming 42 Entertainment, she worked for 10 years as creative director and senior show producer for Walt Disney Imagineering, handling the design and development of major attractions, themed architecture, internet entertainment projects and proprietary rides such as the “Indiana Jones Adventure” at Disneyland.
A treat for fans
The overwhelming popularity of those viral marketing tools—and of the global properties they hyped—has made ARG an appealing tool even to regional attractions such as Six Flags’ New England park. (In the case of “Steel,” oblique website ARGs Clawshun Industries and Metropolis Stock Exchange.com already are drawing in coaster and Superman enthusiasts from around the world.)
Of course, whether viral marketing can inoculate Six Flags from the global financial flu very much remains to be seen.
Six Flags is not facing the downturn alone. Reservations are off 10% for Walt Disney theme parks too, both this quarter and next quarter when compared with the year-earlier periods, CEO Bob Iger said during the company’s third-quarter earnings call. But while both Disney and Six Flags are offering discounts to hike attendance at their parks, only Six Flags appears to be mitigating those discounts by using a worldwide ARG.
It might be overkill, but CEO Marc Shapiro has little choice but to increase attendance if his company is to survive the downturn. In his own third-quarter conference call with analysts this week, Mr. Shapiro insisted boldly, “We’re going to put value on steroids. More hours, more days, longer days, longer season, in every park than ever before.”
Going all out
He then added, perhaps alluding to the new ARG, “I’m not going to get into what our specific advertising creative is going to be but ... we’re going to be out early in our advertising. We’re going to continue to diversify the way we market, really on all platforms and through all vehicles and using all tools, specifically on the digital platform.”
Mike Antinoro, Six Flags’ exec VP-entertainment marketing, was traveling and unavailable for comment; a spokeswoman for Six Flags, Sandra Daniels, declined to comment on the new ARG.