Hotels are known to be 24/7 operations. So why did Hotel 626 shutter its doors back in 2010, after checking in guests for only a couple of years? Namely because this hotel is not your typical hostelry. It was an advergame created to promote Dorito's snacks. It was indeed a social network for horror-philes who prefer their 'bumps in the night' to be filled with primal screams, where their room keys were triggered by Augmented Reality.
Sort of like 'hotel hell,' this advertising campaign pushed the boundaries of AR at the time. The horror theme coincided with Halloween and Doritos’ decision to bring two chip flavors “back from the dead.” The "626 name" derived from the fact this hotel was only open from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m, daily.
Access to the site was free, but certain content could only be unlocked with QR codes found on specially marked bags of Dorito's. This was the brand's opportunity to get under the consumer's skin by pushing the limits of AR technology where the lines between the digital and real worlds blurred. The goal? Well, to virtually and literally "scare the crap out of you!"
Here's the original trailer that highlighted some of Hotel 626's most terrifying moments. See how this ad made the guest's nightmare very personal including their uploaded photos and even a eery follow-up call to their cell phone.
Brian D. WassomCommercial litigator Brian D. Wassom has written extensively on the technology aspects of this Dorito campaign -- but also focused on the Federal Trade Commissions' complaints that the parent company Pepsico and its subsidiary Frito Lay have engaged in deceptive and unfair marketing practices.
Sounding rather 'old school,' the premise of the FTC complaint hinged on their declaration that “contemporary marketing practices are increasingly multidimensional and rely on social and relational methods rather than hard-sell advertising." The inference being that modern advertising should not explore, innovate or even evolve? Isn't that the nature of advertising - to push creative boundaries?
The complaint went on further to indicate that teens who are Dorito's target audience are "uniquely susceptible." Tops on their target list were: "Augmented Reality, online gaming, virtual environments, and other immersive techniques that can induce 'flow,' reduce conscious attention to marketing techniques, and foster impulsive behaviors."
In other words, by coercing and motivating teens to buy certain products, the FTC's complaint argued that this ad campaign deceived this demographic into eating unhealthy snacks, thus contributing to the the childhood obesity problem that exists in our country today.
In my recent interview with Wassom, he indicated that augmented realiy and social media game mechanics in marketing are going to be around for a while. "Augmented Reality is particularly well-suited for enhancing the feeling of 'discovery,' since by its very nature gives digital content the appearance of being 'hidden' in plain sight," he notes.
So if over 2.5 million in 138 countries checked into Hotel 626 over a two-year run, why did management deem it necessary to close shop? Pressure from the FTC? Perhaps not. When I asked the question of Wassom, his position was that Doritos "always intended (the hotel) to be a limited campaign… and it just ran its course."
And as far as Augmented Reality slowing down, Wassom sees just the opposite happening. " Publishers of newspapers, magazines, and other print media are falling over themselves to incorporate AR as a method of engaging readers… so, I don't think any amount of complaining is going to slow the growth in those types of campaigns."
In fact, due to the success of Hotel 626, as a follow-up the ad agency (Goodby, Silverstein & Partners) created another product promo as its sequel, titled "Asylum 626." Pushing digital media even further, this scarefest promotes that the more access a person gives the site to its digital data, the scarier the experience. By using AR, webcam technology, FaceBook Connect, Twitter and real-time video capture, this follow-up campaign blurs the lines between virtual and real-world experiences.
Take a look yourselves. But, be forewarned, if you were a fan of the award-winning drama American Horror Story Asylum, this snake-pit dive makes that TV show look like an assisted living facility.
EDITOR'S UPDATE: For other recommended online scary games to replace Hotel 626, see 3 Sites To Satiate Your Appetite For Fear. For scary video games, Haunted Mansion that may be interesting for younger players. For a more terrifying experience for more mature players, the whole Silent Hill series looks pretty good.