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What if you could step into your favorite TV show - fight zombies with "The Walking Dead," enjoy a donut with Homer Simpson. That's exactly what the big studios and networks are trying to achieve with elaborate displays at conventions like the recently wrapped Comic-Con. NPR's Petra Mayer was at the convention and takes us into the world of immersive marketing.
BRAD HAJART: We're here on the show floor, walking you guys through "The Last Ship" - it's a show on TNT - in this basically two-story tall ship in the middle of the convention center.
PETRA MAYER, BYLINE: Brad Hajart is the creative director for the marketing firm Brand Connections. We're standing in front of the TNT networks area on the convention floor. Anywhere else, this would just be a booth with maybe a fancy backdrop. Here, Brand Connections has built a replica ship that you can walk through, aimed at making the show's fans feel like they're really on board. Unlike, say, a Universal Studios ride, this is ephemeral. It's here for the week and then gone. But you can think of it as kind of a pop-up theme park with all the details you'd expect.
HAJART: So you're going see we've got, literally, like, all the kind of control centers right here. Everything's lit up - knobs you can turn - all kind of stuff.
MAYER: Next to the control panel sits a set of bulky Oculus Rift virtual reality headsets. Brad's team strapped one onto my head, clapped earphones over my ears, and suddenly, I was somewhere else.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: You've got a trigger right back here to shoot, and you could actually look around with the headpiece too.
MAYER: Oh wow.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Turn your head left. And you can turn your head right.
MAYER: Full disclosure - Oculus Rift is not for the faint of stomach like me. But Kendall Whitehouse says virtual reality is the latest thing. He's the technology and media editor for Knowledge@Wharton, the business school's online journal.
KENDALL WHITEHOUSE: One thing's that's characteristic of Comic-Con - the people that come here want something they're not going to get elsewhere.
MAYER: Like the chance to try cutting-edge technology that won't be in your living room anytime soon. But here's the question. Installations like "The Last Ship" can cost anywhere from a quarter-million to a million dollars. Isn't that a lot of money to spend on people who are already fans? Whitehouse says yes, but...
WHITEHOUSE: If you check the Twitter feed of some of these folks, it's not uncommon for some of them to have thousands and thousands of followers. So yes, they may be preaching to the choir, but I think they hope it's an influential choir.
MAYER: Immersive marketing is a pretty new phenomenon. Networks and studios are the ones who can afford it, and they've been building this kind of outsized presence over the past seven or eight years. Improving technology helps too, particularly the virtual reality, according to Brand Connections' Brad Hajart.
HAJART: It's finally accessible. It's finally at a kind of quality level, from an experience standpoint, that is worth investing in.
MAYER: Just three years ago, he says it was unusual to find an installation as big as "The Last Ship." Now when you look around the convention floor, displays tower to the ceiling in every direction. There's a kind of an arms race among companies to see who can put on the most spectacular show. And outside the convention center, things get even bigger. "The Walking Dead" has filled the local ballpark with zombies. There's a block-long obstacle course dedicated to the videogame "Assassin's Creed," and the cable network Adult Swim has a miniature carnival set up by the water, complete with a giant dome that may look familiar to fans of the cartoon "Aqua Teen Hunger Force."
All right, I'm looking at a giant inflatable Meatwad, and I'm about to walk inside it, which is going to be very exciting.
Yes, it's a giant anthropomorphic lump of ground meat. And inside, it's blessedly air-conditioned and packed with people looking up at a planetarium-style production.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Greetings, and welcome to the Meatwad Full Dome Experience.
MAYER: Amantha Walden is the senior director of events for the Adult Swim network which produces "Aqua Teen Hunger Force." She says the dome took a year to design and build, mostly because programming the video was a challenge.
AMANTHA WALDEN: What's being done in this format is planetarium shows and that sort of thing. So it's a little bit difficult to find anyone who understands what you just saw.
MAYER: Adult Swim has been at Comic-Con for eight years, but they've only been running the carnival for three. And this is the only place you're going to see Meatwad, partly because this is the only place there's room for him.
WALDEN: This doesn't go out on tour. This doesn't - isn't on television. And so that's really, I think, was our goal this year, was to create something that was for fans to connect with us and connect with each other here.
MAYER: So really, immersive marketing is as much a once-a-year treat for fans as it is an actual advertising campaign even though hardcore fans may still find something new, fans like Alma Perez and Leticia Valdes from San Diego who say they love the network.
ALMA PEREZ: Well, actually, I found out about some new shows just by coming here, so I'm going to, like, check out some of the new stuff that Adult Swim has.
LETICIA VALDES: Yeah, pretty much - yeah. I'm telling other people who are not familiar with this, like, hey, you know, come check it out.
MAYER: But, they say, the best thing about the Meatwad Full Dome Experience was the air-conditioning. Petra Mayer, NPR News.
DAVE WILLIS: (As Meatwad) We've got to run them off to you. Here, we've got five more groups coming through.
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