Why I thought Heath Ledger wasn’t really dead: viral marketing theories and epiphanies

When I heard the news that Heath Ledger was found dead yesterday, I couldn’t help being a little skeptical. Not to be disrespectful of the dead, but I thought in the first minutes of the reports that it might all be a clever ruse by a very risky marketing team.

Let me take you back in my experience leading up to his death.

I had been researching the viral marketing campaign for The Dark Knight in preparation of doing a post about the numerous things they were doing right to get fans involved. Not having even participated in any of the ARG–or alternate reality game–action, I was still excited to read about all of the various games put together for fans of the movie.

The campaign is being done by famed 42 Entertainment, known for the Halo 2 ARG ILoveBees. It has created a deep reality spanning both the Web and real world for the fans. You can read all about the various elements of the viral marketing efforts in the “Marketing” section of the Wikipedia entry for The Dark Knight.

Recently, clues from the viral marketing campaign led fans to various bakeries in cities around the country where they received cakes containing hidden evidence bags with a real cell phone inside. After following the given instructions and calling a phone number from the cake, fans were left waiting for the Joker to call.

The second factor in my skepticism came from a podcast by Revision3 called The Totally Rad Show. In a recent episode, co-host Alex Albrecht mentioned how he felt Christopher Nolan was really taking up the idea that the Joker was “undead” since he is killed before coming back to life as one of Batman’s greatest villains. Many reports online were citing the many surprises awaiting moviegoers in Nolan’s imagining of the Joker.

Now that we are up to speed, enter the news of Heath Ledger dying just weeks later. The idea crept into my head that this news might be part of the campaign as well.

Obviously, this theory was blown out of the water after numerous official, confirmed reports of Ledger’s body being found and the reactions of his family. For those few minutes before more information was known, I theorized that 42 Entertainment might have blown the ARG open.

Can you imagine how insane that level of depth and immersion would have been? People were rushing to to see the breaking news headline that Heath Ledger was found unresponsive and possibly dead. In that moment, what if, as the Joker himself says, “It’s all part of the plan.”

Of course, they would have had to retract the staged death quickly and made sure that the correct information was known. It would have been controversial.

If Ledger had prepped his family and close friends for the news and the ARG team was ready to go with the next stage–a Joker call from the beyond perhaps–that would have been an epic ARG event. If they had staged the faking of his death in a few months, just before the movie’s release, the stunt might have made a huge impact with fans and the mainstream public as well without breaking fans out of the ARG state of mind.

Despite how impossible it seems, part of me almost wishes that this theory was the truth. We wouldn’t have lost a talented actor so young in his career, and the move would have completely blown any ARG to date out of the water by bringing participants down to reality with the idea of death before pulling them deeper back to the game with the reveal.

What a great way to re-introduce the character of the Joker for longtime fans looking for new life in the Batman saga. It would have been interesting.