Fans of FX’s American Horror Story have endured/enjoyed, among other things, child-killing nuns, an addiction monster with a penchant for anally raping junkies, and the wisecracking severed head of Kathy Bates. Clearly, theirs is a level of dedication unrivaled in mainstream television.
You might even call it cult-like.
Which brings us to “Cult,” the currently airing seventh season of AHS, and how it inspired a launch campaign from the FX marketing team that became the “perfect symmetry between intent and possibility.”
So said Stephanie Gibbons, president of marketing and on-air for FX: “If you’re a fan of American Horror Story, to some degree you are a cult,” she continued. “You are a fan-based, self-identifying group. We wanted to take that one step further and allow them to group with a very specific intent toward this season, which was about a group of people that found each other because they have a very specific point of view, to put it nicely.”
“Cult” aired its debut episode back in September, but the launch campaign made fans feel like they were already in on the action as far back as San Diego Comic Con, where AHS continued its yearly tradition of announcing the upcoming season’s theme with an exclusive trailer. As per usual with AHS promos, the teaser, seen above, was an impeccably produced, spine-tingling spot. It featured more than 200 scary clowns gyrating in a morbidly beautiful geometric configuration and culminated with a snazzy, unified hand motion to deliver the big reveal.
And that was when things got interesting.
Because along with revealing the Cult theme, the Comic Con teaser concluded with a link, www.ahs7.com, where fans could ostensibly go for more information. What awaited them, however, was no run-of-the-mill internet destination, but an online portal to a sweeping immersive experience that tied more than 50 pieces of bonus content, elaborate social media strategy, and state-of-the video technology into a six-week interactive journey leading up to the season debut.
“The idea,” said director Ian Karr, whose company IKA Collective produced the campaign in collaboration with FX, the Spark & Sizzle agency, and interactive video technology pioneers Wirewax, “was to create a destination that was entertainment in and of itself.”
Fans who went to the Season 7 microsite after the San Diego event were presented with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to join the AHS cult, via Facebook. For Wirewax, whose groundbreaking computer-vision technology was the beating digital heart behind the myriad creative elements, channeling the campaign through Facebook was essential because the AHS account on the social media platform enjoys more than 12 million followers.
“One of the things we created in this project was intertwining the real world and digital world with the use of a Facebook bot,” said Dan Garraway, cofounder of Wirewax. “You could join the Facebook bot cult. Once you joined that, we registered you as part of the experience, which meant we could communicate with you on your Facebook messenger app, and each week that passed we were able to literally send messages to the registered users.”
Participants were delivered weekly messages full of creepy clues and puzzles that unlocked all manner of exclusive behind-the-scenes clips, further details regarding plot and characters, and even hot tips on real-world installations where they could pick up cool swag and take photos. The videos themselves offered a further layer of interactivity, each one packed with touch-screen “hotspots” that could be swiped or tapped on smart screens to uncover even more fun.
Spark & Sizzle co-creative directors Cyndy Cecil-Bragg and Crystal Hall were the ones who initially pitched an AHS campaign to FX that tapped into the Wirewax technology.
“I think their technology is so cool,” Cecil-Bragg said. “It makes interactive video available anywhere you can view a video, so the engagement is going to be really high. And once people start engaging with the video, they just keep going, so the engagement time is much longer.”
Typically, “if you’re a brand and you ask fans to do things, they don’t do them,” Garraway said.
Not so with the Cult launch campaign, where AHS viewers who had signed on happily dove into everything they were presented with, such as piecing together a scrambled sentence to unlock a new piece of content.
“Every time we did things like that, they interacted more,” Garraway continued. “They stuck around longer, which is very interesting. It’s obvious that FX has found a mine of engaged viewers here, particularly within the show but more broadly, within the network, that they can build on for the future.”
Wirewax is uniquely equipped to usher networks into the interactive future because its founders, Garraway and CEO Steve Callanan, started out producing television programming, in the UK.
“Interactive video technology generally has always been made by people who have just been thinking about technology and not experience,” Garraway said. “I think it’s why we can sit around the table with Stephanie Gibbons and the team at FX—because we can talk the same language. We’re actually talking about using technology to create experiences. It’s quite different than just slapping something on at the end of the process. [For AHS’ Cult], we were literally at the location where we were making the content, thinking about weaving the interactivity into it from the outset. That’s a major differentiation in the way technology is being used here.”
Embedding interactive into the Cult campaign from the get-go was a huge challenge for everyone involved, especially considering it lasted six weeks, unleashing new activations every week.
“When you’re designing an immersive experience like this, it’s kind of like a Rubik’s Cube that when you change one thing it affects the others,” Karr said. “The interactivity of it and what the reveals would be had to all be preconceived and worked out with Wirewax, with Spark & Sizzle, and with FX, so that the engineering of what we did all worked. We couldn’t just make three videos and then hand it off to Wirewax and say, ‘figure this out…’ If we were to pitch something Wirewax wasn’t able to do we would have been dead in the water.”
The production unfolded “very much like a live show,” Hall added. “We had to be very buttoned up: ‘OK it’s Monday, so that means they’ve approved the idea and we’ve designed the base layer. Tuesday it’s in QT. Wednesday we present to the client and get notes. Thursday we’ve got to revise. Friday we’re going to go with deployment…This happened every week before we could go live. The level of technical attention it needed on top of the creativity was profound.”
It all added up to an unprecedented marketing event, “that was its own journey,” Cecil-Bragg said. “It wasn’t about the show per se, like here’s a character you’re going to interact with—it was a tangential line that drove people to the launch.”
It was also something that, while it will almost certainly become the norm going forward, could have, in this current moment, only happened at FX.
“Stephanie is brilliant and I’m not sure where else you would find such an experimental and creative team like she has built,” Cecil-Bragg said. “She wanted her team to push their limits, and they really pushed us, and this is the result. This very future-forward campaign.”
Cult Promo Campaign Creative Credits:
Jason Phipps, SVP Digital Media
Joe Paulding, VP Social Media & Content
Tyler Slocum, VP Ops, Platforms & Technology
Antonio Hernandez, Director, Social Media & Content
Kenya Hardaway, SVP, Integrated Promotions
Sally Daws, EVP, Advertising, Strategy & Digital
Agency: Spark+Sizzle, New York
Creative Director, Project Lead: Cyndy Cecil-Bragg
Creative Director: Crystal Hall
Production: IKA Collective, New York
Director: Ian Karr
Director of Photography: Paul Tolton
Editor: Ronni Thomas
Visual Effect Director: Vince Rose
Interactive: WIREWAX, New York
Project Directors: Dan Garraway & Steve Callanan
EVP, Product: Tim Strobl
Developers: Jennifer Mah, Arjun Sathe, Sam Bass, Pradeep Chandrasekaran, Tim
Creative Lead: Jennifer Mah with assistants Steve Poxson, Charlie Potter
Project Managers: Darian Chornodolsky, Samir Ghosh
Analytics: Bea DiCarlo, Richard Nias