Those wondering if Orson Welles' 1938 radio broadcast of War of the Worlds, the panic-inducing radio play that sent some listeners screaming into the streets in fear of an alien attack, could ever happen again need look no further than BMW's latest viral campaign in China.
The German automaker thought it would be fun to create some mysterious "crop circle" patterns in the Gobi Desert in western China, upload them to the web, and kick back and see what happens. Wo Cao.
Posted to Chinese social media site Weibo in mid-August, the photos quickly sparked numerous conspiracy theories, ranging from UFOs to secret military operations. The original posting of the photos has now been forwarded over 46,500 times and tallied over 18,000 comments.
Three days later, the formations had already been picked up on by international UFO groups, one of which posted a video.
China being China, one commenter joked of the "crop" circles: "i'm thinking maybe the aliens are having such a hard time finding green in china that they decided that they could only make crop circles in sand!"
By Aug. 22, even China's official news agency, Xinhua, published a piece about the "abnormal" desert "rings," going so far as to mention aliens, but not the true source of the patterns.
By Aug 26, Xinhua was issuing an updated report on how BMW had copped to the "crop" circles.
As the Epoch Times reports, the reveal came through China's massive all-things website Sina.com. The viral campaign reasoned something about how the "1 Series" campaign fit with the crop circle stunt as the aim of the viral was to highlight the "UN1QUE" characteristics of both the BW model and its prospective driver and that UFO is short for "UN1QUE For One." No, it does not make more sense in Chinese.
The Times tracks down some comments on Weibo from those who felt unfairly tricked by the viral. "Decent people don't do this kind of thing," wrote one.
While the stunt itself was a clear success, one wonders how successful it was as a brand-building effort. Sure, the viral created a lot of web chatter, but a great deal of that was from UFO-watchers and conspiracy theorists; is that BMW's new target demo? And if they are — is embarrassing and mocking them the best approach? The crop viral appears to be an extension of the existing Leo Burnett Beijing-headed UN1QUE campaign.
BMW has used viral campaigns in China before, and to much better effect, such as the automaker's 2010 dual-part viral "Beast Inside" campaign, which celebrated the 25th anniversary of the M Series.
BMW is having a stellar year in China, with sales way up over 2010 (alongside those national rivals Mercedes and Audi). But as the nation's auto market contracts, BMW is repositioning to capture new consumer groups. Where only the 3 and 5 series existed before, the BMW 1 Series is the automaker's China-made offering to that nation's growing auto market. The 1 Series is less luxury, more middle class, targeting the sporty, urban, youthful Chinese consumer.
BMW's China pipeline also includes more fuel-efficient vehicles, including a plug-in hybrid. These products anticipated recent government warnings that automakers in China need to begin thinking more environmental green, and less bottom line green, calling the market's current growth "unrealistic."
As the Guardian noted last week, "Toyota managed to sell only one Prius in China last year. That's right. The world's most commercially successful hybrid car has found only one buyer in the fastest growing market."