The Truth About Marika: Lie or Gesamtkunstwerk?

Crossing the boundaries of conventional media categories and integrating them into one single interconnected experience is all the rage in show business – a bit like what the German intellectuals call a Gesamtkunstwerk, a synthesis of different art forms.

But so far there are not many examples where this has actually worked out. Frequently, cross-media projects are contrived proofs of concept rather than a truly entertaining and inspiring experience. But are there successful models?

During the conference Stand and Deliver: Creating Public Value in a New Media Economy at this year’s Rose d’Or festival in Lucerne (see my earlier comments on the event here), Swedish television producer, Christopher Sandberg, presented the case study of a 2007 production called The Truth About Marika which was deployed by Sveriges Televsion SVT, the country’s public broadcaster. It was a quite fascinating project, but one that probably raises as many issues as it provides best practice.

In fairness, I must state that I have not actually watched, participated in, or interacted with the programme. I do not speak Swedish, but only know what Sandberg told his Lucerne audience. So please take all of the following observations with a grain of salt.

The project was based on the premise that many people disappear without a trace every year. The producers picked the fate of a fictitious woman, Marika, and told the public that they were making a TV drama series about her. Early on, long before the first regular episode aired, the – again, fictitious – sister of the missing woman went public with accusations against SVT that they were exploiting Marika’s story without proper authorisation.

Unaware that the entire thing was a hoax, other media picked up on this apparent scandal. Eventually, SVT scheduled a live discussion with Marika’s sister, the producer, and the commissioning TV editor, moderated by a celebrity presenter. Of course, the whole broadcast, which later was to be followed by more televised discussion panels, was staged. Just like the “scandal,” it served as a marketing measure in the run-up to the actual series.

At the same time, the producers released a dedicated website that was to be the hub of the entire project. Aptly named, it started a conspiracy theory about some clandestine group that kidnapped Marika. The website gave hints on how to contact that group. Fake clues as to her whereabouts were planted both in cyberspace and in the real world. Thus ensued a scavenger hunt with many actual participants. Thanks to network effects, the number of people meddling in it rose steadily.

The key visual of the hunt was a two-dimensional square barcode, such as they are used, e.g., for electronic postage or so-called Quick Response Codes. Such barcodes, containing extra information, were posted across Sweden, to be found and decoded by people who had involved themselves in the search.

In a special marketing stunt, the producers dispatched a person to a big open-air concert, waving a flag with the barcode symbol. Not only was that clearly visible during the live broadcast and thus promoting the project for free – to the producers’ surprise, there was another person at the concert, waving a similar flag without being officially prompted to do so. The fabricated visual had developed a life of its own.

As could be expected in modern times, people who engaged in the search for Marika and the secret society documented their adventures in pictures and on video, and uploaded their content to the Internet – both to the conspiracy website and to general portals such as YouTube. Clips of the user-created material were later televised in the series and used as “evidence” in the discussion panels. In order to round out the experience, the producers even created a computer game to go with it all.

Parts of the adventure developed beyond the control of the producers, who had no way of telling what individual participants might do or whether they would interfere with how the project was planned.

By the time the actual fictional series was aired, SVT had generated a substantial buzz. It is probably also safe to assume that the vast majority of participants, most of them web-savvy and well acquainted with cyber games, had long realised that everything was a fake – or, to put it more benignly, a game in its own right.
So The Truth About Marika was a success – in audience ratings, participation numbers, and publicity. Integration between television, cyberspace and the real world was seamless; a good part of the marketing efforts were free or very easily implemented. The project even received several international awards and placed the production company on the map of Hollywood majors. It was a creative venture that played all keys of the publicity instrument.

The project proved what was possible in merging and mixing media and in creating audience involvement. It showed how up-to-date technology can be used effectively, and put public television back on young people’s agenda. One might even argue that it helped raise awareness for missing persons.

And yet, it also leaves also a cynical aftertaste. It consciously blurs the boundary between fact and fiction, between fake and reality. But so do many other entertainment formats. Court and casting shows, or so-called “fictional reality” programmes, pretend to be real by using jerky hand-held-camera images, laypeople as actors, and by shooting on location with available light.

What makes me a bit uneasy about this entire genre is that the pretence of reality is a constitutive element in this. Sure, most, if not all, entertainment and games have pretend elements. However, that fact is usually clear to everybody from the very beginning. But would as many people have interacted with the Marika programme if it hadn’t had the faux reality component?

Is The Truth About Marika any worse than the usual reality TV, or is it merely the advanced way of producing contemporary entertainment? Could a similar scheme be repeated, or was this a one-time stunt that left the audience even more jaded? Or did it make them better educated about how media can dupe the public? Could the potential that was unleashed here be channelled into more productive activities? How can fiction that pretends to be real serve the public sphere and create public value? Who had more fun implementing this – the makers of the programme, watching what they were able to make the audience do, or those who became animated to engage?

One telling sign may be that the Marika hype subsided in 2007. Two years later, there does not appear to have been a follow-up project.