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July 26, 2005: Audi's Art of the Heist Captured Leads

An all-inclusive campaign for the A3 that included on online sleuth game created buzz and generated dealer leads.

A recently concluded interactive advertising campaign launched by Audi not only generated considerable traffic and industry buzz, but more importantly, it served as a consistent source of leads to Audi dealers nationwide.

Ad agency McKinney-Silver designed the three-month campaign, dubbed The Art of the Heist, to boost visibility for Audi's A3 premium compact car. According to Jason Musante, an art director for the Durham, NC-based agency, a new 2006 A3 was "stolen" from an Audi dealership on Park Avenue in New York City last April. The "thieves" left behind a smashed window. Signs went up in place of the A3 at the New York International Auto Show asking for information about the "theft."

Thus began a comprehensive campaign (Audi declined to reveal total campaign costs but a company spokesperson said they were "substantial") that included virtually every known available medium -- print ads, billboards, TV commercials, radio spots, websites, live events, emails, videos, wild postings, blogs, IRC chats, direct mail, voice transcripts, puzzles, photos and scanned-in documents.

By far the most intriguing aspect of the campaign was an interactive fictional story sponsored by Audi that was told across multiple platforms. It also included live participation by followers at various events nationwide, some of which included:

  • New York International Auto Show
  • Jim Ellis Audi dealership, Atlanta, GA
  • Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, Indio, CA
  • E3 Expo, Los Angeles
  • AFI film parties
  • Campaign finale party at The Viceroy Hotel, Santa Monica, CA

In brief, the story used a technique known as alternative reality gaming, in which a community of users becomes a part of the story, interacts with the characters, and helps each other solve the mystery.

"The story centered around six 2006 A3s containing secure digital memory cards (or SD; a postage-stamp-sized storage device used with certain cell phones, digital cameras, smart phones and PDAs) with code plans for the largest art heist in history," says Lee Newman, a McKinney-Silver group account director. "One car, a red A3, contained the key to decrypting the plans."

The story's protagonists were Nisha Roberts, an expert art retriever; Ian Yarborough, her boyfriend and tech whiz; and Virgil Tatum, a world-renowned video game designer.

The Art of the Heist unfolded in multiple chapters via various story sites and a microsite. The websites contained hundreds of documents that gave the characters a comprehensive back story for the audience to go through. Newman says these included:

  • Backlogs of emails from the characters
  • Phone recordings, videoconferences, conversation transcripts and text chats
  • Index of image and text documents relating to work done before the story started
  • Blueprints, maps, crime photos, suspect lists, surveillance videos, security camera footage and MP3s
  • "Easter Egg" films, hidden in undisclosed one-word links as the story unfolded. The two-minute QuickTime films enabled the audience to see key moments in the story that would otherwise be undocumented.

The three characters raced for their lives cross-country as a pair of hit men pursued them.

"Since events unfolded in real time, participants were not only able to watch what happened, but were also able to influence events through their direct participation in live 'retrieval missions' that were webcast in real time," says Musante. "A 'living movie' involved many different layers of presentation, which allowed participants to choose their level of involvement."

Newman added that at E3, the world's largest video game exhibition, the Virgil Tatum character conducted an interview at the PlayStation booth with Kazunori Yamauchi, the creator of the racing video game franchise for the PlayStation platform, Gran Turismo. VH1 also did an on-air interview with Virgil in front of the PlayStation booth.

The campaign concluded at a launch party for Virgil's new game, held at The Viceroy Hotel.

"It was discovered that Virgil's business partner, Emile Smithson, was behind the heist from the beginning," says Newman. "From Germany to New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, he orchestrated a series of manipulations and deceptions worthy of his best video game design -- all of it over the fame and millions he felt Virgil owed him years ago."

At the party, the missing A3 was finally "found."


While the fictional story proved great fun for participants, Audi's ultimate goal was to make the A3 a household name nationwide.

According to statistics researched and compiled by McKinney-Silver, more than 200,000 people became involved with the search for the stolen A3 in a single day. An estimated 500,000 people were involved in the search on an ongoing basis. Within the first few days of the campaign launch, fans created seven fan sites, one of which was a "Top 10 Reasons to Play Art of the Heist."

Website traffic to also spiked dramatically. May 2004 figures were 843,212; a year later during the middle of the campaign, traffic increased 40 percent to 1,199,049. Weekly microsite traffic increased steadily throughout the campaign, and took a huge jump when full-scale advertising started on May 15. As an example, daily microsite traffic was averaging about 33,000 from May 8 through 14; the following week it exploded to 281,000.

The story sites had long stick times -- 4:48 for; 3:58 for; and 9:49 for

Newman also notes that online advertising effectiveness increased for Audi -- after a person clicked an online advertisement to investigate the program, 34 percent of user page views on were to A3 buying indicator pages (configurator, dealer locator, payment, estimator, request a quote). He says this represented a 79 percent increase in qualification over previous launch efforts.

The campaign was a consistent source of leads to Audi dealers nationwide -- more than 10,000 leads have been generated so far, including 3,827 test drives.

"Dealers are reporting a tremendous interest in Audi's newest offering aided by this unconventional marketing campaign," says Reinhard Fisher, Audi's director of sales.

"The Art of the Heist represented a true innovation in the way Audi connected with its target consumer," says Stephen Berkov, Audi's marketing director. "Creating the thriller on the internet which involved our new A3 engaged our target customer in the Audi brand."

Neal Leavitt is president of Fallbrook, CA-based Leavitt Communications, an international marketing communications company with affiliates in Paris, France; Hamburg, Germany; Hong Kong; London, United Kingdom; Bangalore, India; and Sao Paulo, Brazil. He writes frequently on Internet and high technology topics.

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