A Narrative Designer’s Experience of Amazon’s “The Man in the High Castle” Resistance Radio campaign
How I went from dreading the swag to subscribing
Last month I received an email asking if I’d like to be sent a promotional kit (free swag) for the Amazon Original Series The Man in the High Castle. The company running the campaign is Campfire, one that I am very familiar with and fond of. I have known the Chief Creative Officer, Mike Monello, for years from a distance, and know many of the employees. They have been making highly successful and respected content marketing for a long time. Their roots are in the Blair Witch Project, with its clever and alluring in-fiction marketing — which myself and many others have studied. And their campaigns, such as Game of Thrones, True Blood, and Art of the Heist, are some of my favourites. The Art of the Heist in particular for me, as it was the first ARG that ignited my passion as a player. So I said yes without even checking what it was for.
In the transmedia space, Campfire are great making creative in-fiction campaigns for already existing projects. What this means, is that rather than making a project transmedia from the beginning, they specialise in coming into TV shows and products that already exist and retroactively making them transmedia. I will call out a term here, and warn you that more are to come. I’m currently developing a book and kit on the psychology of why we traverse media, and so I cannot help but draw on the terms and principles that underlie that research.
For these kinds of projects, Campfire need to figure out what would truly represent the world as it already is depicted, what fans already like, and what could possibly draw more in. With TV shows, it sometimes means working with showrunners to create an interactive or at least personalised experience of a work that wasn’t designed for participation or effort in the first place. This is the retroactive part. Shoehorning a different kind of experience. The kind of experience Campfire does well at is one that is about meeting the audience drive to inhabit a world.
With their scent and food experiments for the Games of Thrones, blood-substitute drinks for True Blood, and email hacks for Art of the Heist, and even the interactive trailer for the possession-themed horror Outcast, Campfire are unquestionably playing with audience interest in inhabiting a fictional world. So, when I finally investigated what Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle was about, I suddenly felt concerned about what this campaign would draw me into.
I wasn’t worried about being tricked or any of the ethics of ARGs and hoaxes. Campfire figured these issues out a long time ago. Remember, I had to opt-in. I wasn’t worried about the “immersiveness” of the campaign in any way. Instead, it was the nature of the The Man In the High Castle story.
The story is an alternate history (interesting!), based on a novel by Philip K.Dick (wohoo!), of the outcome of World War II. In this story, the Axis powers won and split the United States into the Greater Nazi Reich and the Japanese Pacific States. The reluctance I had was spending mental energy in a world where Nazis rule. It took me many years to realise the manipulations of people who don’t care for me, and then to disentangle my unhealthy empathy for them. Part of my happiness now is due to me not spending time with stories and games that depict a world in which I’m not welcome, recognised, understood, or loved. I have plenty of that elsewhere.
My concern with The Man In the High Castle, was that it seemed an appealing TV series subject, and that my writing about the campaign could draw people who may be harmed by the experience. Of course, I didn’t have to write about the campaign (Campfire certainly did not ask for anything in return). I also know that I would tell the truth anyway. I just hoped it wouldn’t be bad.
I didn’t expect to actually be excited by and identify with the world. Here is how they did it.
I was excited about receiving the package. I checked the mail at work every day. No matter what happens, receiving swag from Campfire was exciting. In part due to the anticipation of a rare, high-production value product that will delight my fondness for “inhabiting” worlds, and in part to the social status of being put on a Campfire and Amazon swag list!
I had decided not to delve into The Man In the High Castle before the package arrived, as I wanted to see what it would be like for someone with no revealing drive. The world was unfamiliar to me, I didn’t know the characters or the events, and so I had to inclination no see events continue to be revealed to me. But this was one of the goals of the campaign, right? To bring in new people to the world.
Then I received a call from reception, letting me know there is a package fro me downstairs. I ran down and there it was! A package addressed to me, from Amazon Prime! I ran back upstairs and tried to get people to want to check it out with me, but they didn’t care. They didn’t know the story or swag. So this moment was just for me then!
The first thing that is impressive about the package — it isn’t big, that isn’t where I’m going — is the double packaging. The other box cover was all about the real world: my address and Amazon Prime. The second layer was all about the fictional world. With box signage and postage set in the fiction. This is a physicalisation of the “opt-in” ethics principle. Where at all points it is clear that this is a work of fiction through the paratextual calling out of the actual company behind it, and then the in-fiction elements are only accessible once I agree to go further. It also means no-one involved in the mail was affected or alerted by in-fiction packaging.
I honestly did not spend time with each layer, and so it is just keywords that leap into my mind and cumulatively build up the story of this package: electronic, music, character-building, 1962. Then on the side to open this inner package, I saw a warning message:
Now these words about “subversive materials” is all I needed to really get excited about what is inside. The previous layer worked to kind of set the scene: german, 1962, and what is the this music reference (which was cool). But subversive materials has an attraction for many of us — where the possibility of shedding artificial and obstructive constraints is a freeing thought. Now it is about my relationship with the world, not what the world is about. Further to subversion instinct, if the Reich is warning me not to do this, it must be good. Not because it is therefore really evil. Instead, it could be something that undermines evil.
As I fumbled through the package contents within seconds, I caught in my subconscious a needle, and then went straight to what seemed to be a record (and my mind knew this is so because of the mention of music). I marvelled at the record and wanted to play it. Then I saw a fold-out pamphlet that tells us how to play it right now using this sleeve! I turned to an audio-teacher and practitioner colleague sitting beside me and she was intrigued! I had a memory of a needle for some reason and then found the little envelop. We giggled with the words “Don’t Give Up” because right now it meant to keep trying to figure out how to play it.
We quickly assembled it, but despite the pin in the centre of the record and our own sticky-tap hacks, it couldn’t stay centred to get enough sound. Rose, my audio colleague (and co-collaborator on a previous project), remembered a technique you can use to listen to a record anywhere. She used the pin and made a cylinder to echo the sounds up through the cone.
But once again, we couldn’t get the record to rotate centrally, and so the sounds kept jumping. It was very cool though, to have that fold-out device to play the music straight away. It added to the whole underground feel in a unique way. But we couldn’t play it properly! And while Rose had a turntable at home, we wanted to experience this right now. Figuring out how to play it was a big part of the fun. Records have a nostalgia drive— where I’m drawn to experience something I have positive memories of. There is also a novelty drive to the experience of a rare platform, and a fun joint task to do with others. So I ran downstairs to the Tech team to see if there happened to be a turntable on campus. There is one, but it is old. The older the better!
The Tech team and Rose had conversations about the best audio plugs and connectors to use and set-up the speakers. The turntable needed a good clean to spin properly, and so it was taken apart and put together again. Then we got to this (albeit squeaky) moment!:
We stood there listening to the track by Sharon Van Etten, thrilled we got it to work, marvelling at this rare moment. Rose was excited by the names involved (me too): Sam Cohen, Danger Mouse, and the letter with the long list for a forthcoming album: Beck, Benjamin Booker, The Shins, Angel Olsen, Waterstrider, Michael Kiwanuka, Crandaddy, Big Search, Kevin Morby, Kelis, Norah Jones, Curtis Harding, Maybird, and Karen O. Here was a personality drive, where people that resonate with us make the project more appealing. We anticipate we’ll get more of what we already like, and it will relate to us.
There is also a pamphlet directed to Reich Youth with a call to action to an actual location and time (Austin = SXSW). When you fold it (evoking Mad Magazine memories and the ludic impulse) it reveals the event will actually be a “Resistance Radio Head Quarters”. If I was in town at that time, I would definitely check it out.
Not being able to attend this live event is okay. I don’t mind that. It takes time and money to travel long distances. It is missing out on the digital events that are harder to stomach. In the letter was mention of ResistanceRadio.com. I knew it wouldn’t be accessible because (further disclaimer) I helped geo-check that it couldn’t be reached in Australia. I had seen posts, though, by colleagues and mates through Twitter exclaiming how wonderful the radio program is. They loved the stories.
I was impressed that I received the package at the same time if not before many colleagues in the USA. They timed that super well. But now that I had been through a lot of the package elements, I was keen to experience more. I’m used to the “tyranny of distance,” and how territory deals prevent me from accessing a lot of entertainment despite the high demand for a globally-shared experience. I presume there is a music licensing problem that is preventing me from accessing the digital radio station. But when I discovered there was a workaround (I guess, in true Ozzie-illegal-downloading-fashion), I jumped at the chance.
So it turns out you can listen to the full 4 hour storytelling experience, Resistance Radio, through iHeart. I downloaded the app, signed-up, and followed the link to hear the radio program. You have to follow the link it seems, as they’ve made it unavailable through search.
Listen to Resistance Radio Live for Free! Stream News & Talk songs online from this radio station, only on iHeartRadio.www.iheart.com
Now here is where I’m suddenly deep into the world of The Man In the High Castle, but instead of looking at some pretend-Reich propaganda (warning me to not look elsewhere), I’m in the heart of the Resistance.
“Resistance Radio extends this world where pirate radio stations broadcast in secret from basements, boats and pickup trucks. Resistance Radio DJs — Miss Evangeline, Bob Montez and Jake Rumiel — will host four hours of narrative storytelling, broadcasting the Resistance movement’s underground message to all; with the hope that they can keep the memory of a former America alive.” (from The Nerdist republishing of the press release)
Weaved between the songs, the DJs gave us words to inspire us to not give in against the Nazis. In the context of what is happening in America, UK and Australia politically, these DJs were speaking to those who find themselves surrounded by governments that do not have any compassion and are taking steps to dismantle any humanity from our systems.
“The first step to resistance is to resistance in your heart, where they can’t get you. […] If you remember one thing, remember this, you are not alone.”
“We handed our America to a Nazi mad man […] That is the reality of America today. […] I’m not going to lie to you America, we’re running out of time.”
This is where this campaign, this content marketing, this storytelling experience, suddenly invoked a positive affinity drive. We’re all familiar with the elements that make projects appealing to us: stars, special effects, sales, and other ones we’ve mentioned already: novelty and inhabiting drives. But there is something else that is becoming a deciding factor for many: personal values.
Look at the difference between a previous Amazon The Man In the High Castle campaign (not by Campfire) and this current one. In 2015, Nazi symbols were put in New York City subways to promote the show. There was a backlash and they were removed. That campaign was a potential inhabiting experience, but without an opt-in threshold, and using values that do not positively resonate with people.
Following a vicious backlash from the patrons of the New York City subway, e-commerce giant Amazon seems to have…gizmodo.com
For this 2017 campaign, we instead are positioned as the resistance against the Nazis. We are told to keep our spirits high in the face of what surrounds us. It is here, in the voice of Miss Evangeline (and Bob and Jake), that I found a worldview I could align. I now have a personal affinity with The Man In the High Castle. These personal values cannot be underestimated, but too often they are because of the erroneous belief that design can be benign. No design is benign. There is no neutral design. The characters and story that you think is quite simple and every day, can contain non-stop gabs at women, homosexuals, and non-whites. The “mass entertainment” of the 1950s and beyond was not appealing to all, there was a narrative that dominated.
With Resistance Radio, this storytelling experience aligned with values of “broadmindedness,” “sense of belonging,” and “freedom,” and of course tapped in to the current struggles in western societies. Funnily enough, it seems some with opposing principles at play think it is real.
Now, with this personal resonance, I was ready to jump into the TV show. But something stopped me once again. Thankfully, Amazon Prime Video is available to many countries. So the obstacle was not geo-locking. Instead it had to do with the a need I had coming from Resistance Radio.
The TV Show
I was able to get to Amazon Prime Video, and The Man In the High Castle, easily. The entry page even had our TV show right there in the front (see below). This is exactly what I need as I venture into a new subscription space. It is a visual confirmation that I am on the right path: giving me a an acknowledgement that the call-to-action I’m pursuing is here and active.
But then as soon as I sign up, The Man In the High Castle is much lower in the visual hierarchy. I can find it easily enough, but I noticed how this made me feel: that I’m riding a wave of activity that is not shared by many and not the focus of this space. I realise how important visual (or aural) acknowledgements are in legitimising effort and feigning popularity. In this moment, I suddenly felt that this was a tiny campaign, a tiny moment that not many are doing. Exclusivity was not what I needed right now, interestingly. Instead it was social grouping.
But this wasn’t enough to stop me of course. So I clicked on Season 2, and then I stopped. I didn’t want to just watch the TV show. The smart thing would be to start at the beginning. But the world I’m in, Resistance Radio, doesn’t exist there. Aren’t we part of a pre-season-3 campaign? Looking online, it seems season 3 was just announced in Jan. I didn’t want to jump in to a world that was distinct from the one I’m experiencing right now. That would take me away from this space, not closer to it.
Thankfully I stumble across a Facebook post by Mike Monello about a season 2 episode that was made while they were working on the campaign. Apparently the campaign idea was exciting the writers and they integrated a mention of the pirate radio station into episode 5: Duck and Cover.
Now this is what I’m looking for!!! I dive in and watch, taking in the scenes, noting the high production value and the wonderful actors involved. The storyline isn’t entirely clear and so there is definitely a serial structure happening (which is totally fine — I know it will make more sense when I watch from the beginning). Then it happens. One of the characters drives a truck into an alley and then pulls out a radio. “It’s Pirate Radio,” he says, “to remind them what they’re fighting for.”
Suddenly I’m here! I’m right in the middle of this world. I’m part of it, and it recognises what is currently happening in the world, in my world, right now. The TV show is doing a callback to Resistance Radio (not directly mind you, just the existence of it in the world). What about a callback from Resistance Radio to the TV show? Yep, it seems there were mentions of events that happen in that world. What about a callback from Resistance Radio to the package? Aha! There is a moment when DJ Bob Montez mentions vinyl. I was stuck still when I heard this. I waited for him to refer to the record I had in my secret package. I wanted the world to notice me, to notice that I was part of it. Calling out what I have in my hand, what I’ve experienced, is how I get that. It is how I get to be a part of the world, not just skirting the walls. He did mention an underground factory. And then he went into playing “these suckers” the wrong way around. We certainly tried playing the record backwards, but couldn’t hear anything clearly.
So there it is: a neat feedback loop between all the elements: the package, the digital radio station, and the TV show. There really needs to be a callback to each other in each piece. Every element needs to resonate, and finally it did. And I’m happy. They will be delving further into the Resistance Radio storyline in season 3. I may even wait to binge watch the first two seasons to work towards that resonant moment. [Edit: Mike let me know the pirate radio network also appears in S2 E9!]
Through this experience I went to plenty of effort without thinking twice: we tried to make a record-player with paper and a needle; we went on an adventure with the Tech team at work and dismantled and hooked up a turnable to listen to a 7"; I downloaded and signed-up to iHeartRadio (and got Rose to do that too); I subscribed to Amazon Prime Video and watched an episode of The Man In the High Tower; and I wrote this post. All because of a mix of drives: personality, novelty, nostalgia, and importantly, affinity (positive personal values). It was because of this mix (especially the positive values), that I was turned around from being wary to happy to jump into a world I thought would not welcome me.
If you‘re interested in checking this out:
- This weekend at SXSW, you can check out “the sounds of freedom” at the Market and Tap Room, 319 Colorado St, Austin, on March 11th-13th 10am-4pm, 8pm-2am; 14th 10am-9pm. And at the official SXSW Showcase on March 4th at the Belmont, there will be Benjamin Booker, Big Search, Grandaddy, Kelis, Maybird, Sam Cohen & The Resistance Band playing.
- You can listen to the 4 hour audio storytelling experience at ResistanceRadio.com (edit: USA, Canada, UK, France, Italy, Spain, Germany, Ireland) or iHeartRadio (everyone else)
- You can stream seasons 1 & 2 of The Man In the High Castle at Amazon Prime Video
- On April 7th, you can buy the album (including the full vinyl!):
Post-edit (12th March): Now Amazon are overtly folding in the Resistance Radio narrative into the TV series with this video: