Oct 12, 2013

Impromptu Swag Review: Zipper Magazine

From time to time, I review the physical objects from various transmedia projects. If you have a project and you want to send me something for review, drop it in the mail.

Usually, I review things I get in the mail from ARGS and the like. This edition of swag review is something a little different – something that just randomly fell on my desk yesterday morning.


This is Zipper magazine. It’s a promo mag for Levi’s Orange Tab, created by their dedicated agency Levi’s XX, and it’s being handed out at music festivals. That’s right, today I’m reviewing a piece of event swag. A print project, no less.  More shocking still, it’s a piece of branded content.  The scandal!

Before we open this beauty, let me tell you the remarkable story of how I ended up with this copy of Zipper.  My parents found Zipper on a swag table at the Austin City Limits music festival.  It was not handed to them by a street team member; it was on the table where promo items go to die.  My mom picked it up, looked inside, and decided to keep the magazine.  It was so funny and interesting that she brought it home with her.  And then, about a week later, she picked it up again and started reading it aloud to me.

This is the trajectory that most brands hope their event swag follows – but most of the time their stuff just gets thrown out, or tossed in a swag bag and forgotten about.  Which is to say that Zipper is a good piece of tangible.  Really good.


The cover of Zipper is no put on or gimmick.  Inside is a tone-perfect 60-page Rolling Stone-style rock magazine set in Topanga Canyon, 1972, complete with album reviews, letters to the editor, classifieds, local news, profiles of area DJs, horoscopes, and 16-page feature following a fictional band called Witches Hat on tour in Amsterdam.



Yes, that is a photograph of a man playing a flute to some tulips.  Opposite, copy proclaims, “The flute in question is now hung in the Cincinnati Museum of Rock Curiosities, next to Eric Clapton’s appendix.”

The photography in this mag has a very distinct voice, tongue and cheek homage to the era.  The members of Witches’ Hat meander through a flower-filled wood, relax drinking in a booth at a blues bar, and take a piss on the side of their tour RV. A fictional groupie holds a bright orange telephone to her ear as she pauses in painting her nails, a look of excitement on her face.  A retired frontman sits in a field carving wooden mushrooms.  Oh yes.


Caption from the mag: “Bryan plans to carpet Mirkwood Paddock with more than 3,000 hand-carved mushrooms by the year 1980.”

The writing is similarly delightful, managing to capture the joy of reading genuine old magazines.  (I’ll admit, at first glance I thought Zipper was a mag out of my mom’s vintage collection.)  The tone is earnest and passionate while being genuinely funny, with little details added in for realism.  The result is a certain flavor of dry humor that reminds me a lot of Welcome to Night Vale, only set in the hip 70s microcosm of Topanga Canyon instead of a vortex of supernatural madness.

“I’ve always been a big fan of Witches Hat, ever since they were still Dirty Wurds in the late 60’s,” the feature begins. “I was still a teenager when Mind Potato was released, and it completely rewrote my musical DNA. Many inner parts of my mind are still potato shaped even now.”

“Every lyric from the album is tattooed on Bryan’s left thigh,” reads one highlighted quote. “We know a yogi who also does micro-calligraphy.”

One classified reads, “SIGNED SOCCER BALL. Unsure of name, could be Pele, could be Pete. Take a chance! Box 178”

And then there’s the local news.


There are 60 pages of Zipper, and almost every paragraph is like this.

At this point, my love for Zipper is pretty much unabashed.  It has a vivid little world, interesting characters, gorgeous visuals and a streak of weirdness laced throughout.  And did I mention all the little details?  The faux black and white and color flats.  The font and layout choices.  The fake filler ads for the Pinballers Society and the Zappa sandwich grill (“Please send me your free guide to toasting sandwiches, including over 50 delicious new Swiss Cheese recipes.”)  The appropriately-paged faux spot color.  FAUX SPOT COLOR. ASHSDBSHVHG!

But, readers, we’re about to venture into choppy waters – for you see, Zipper is branded content. With the rare exception, branded content is not that great.  The branding and the content tend to gloop into each other, and you end up with a sticky, unfocused, disingenuous mess.  I’m happy to say that Zipper is one of those rare exceptions. In the end, I like the magazine more because of its brand tie ins, not less. Will wonders never cease?

All of the real adverts in Zipper are for Levi’s (with three exceptions – period ads for Fender, Jack Daniels and Schlitz) – and oh, these ads.  Gorgeous.  Some of the pieces are played straight…



….some are period tone pieces…



….and some are just plain weird.




The spots are done in such a variety of styles that it takes you a while to even notice as you jump over the ads, flipping through to the next piece of content.  Of course, it should have been obvious since the mag is called Zipper.  And every single person in it is wearing jeans. And there are URLS pointing to the Levi’s website sparsely scattered throughout.  And whole zine has an orange color scheme to go with the Orange Tab branding.  But those things occur to you later, after you’ve read a good bit of it.

(There’s also an ad for a free music festival put on by Levi’s which by all accounts amounted to a 1970’s themed Renaissance Fair.)

All of this works because there’s a pretty solid wall between the brand and the content.  Levi’s is essentially playing along with the story rather than inserting itself, ham fisted, into the fictional world it’s created.  They come across as a generous and entertaining host, rather than a sponsor in need of impressions.

That meant taking some risks for the sake of elegance and subtlety.  For example, “Flared Jeans Can Save Your Life” – the story of a hiker saved from a fall by a snagging flare cuff – doesn’t mention a brand name at all.  You won’t see the words “jeans” “denim” or “Levi’s” anywhere on the cover, or any reference to the brand in the magazine copy.  The music festival serves as the in-world call to action, and every URL is fenced off in ad space. In a weird reversal, this fake branded magazine seems to have more journalistic integrity than many real world news outlets.

All in all, this is one of the best pieces of tangible I’ve seen this year.  It’s playful, elegant, funny, and evocative.  I’m keeping this one on my bookshelf – if my mom doesn’t steal it first.  If you want to read it in digital form (which isn’t nearly as lovely as flipping randomly through the physical version), you can find it on the Orange Tab website.

Have some swag you’d like to see me opine on?  Go right ahead and send it to me.

Sep 18, 2012

Unboxing: Byzantium Security

Last week, I took a personality test that may or may not have brainwashed me, and this weekend I got a black bubble mailer full of puzzles and secrets from the testing organization, Byzantium Security International.

Black packaging seems to be code, by the way, for “transmedia is happening here.”  I mean, take a look at my last three mailers.

In any case, here’s what’s inside this particular black package – a nice, out of game letter telling me that this is a promotion for the new Cinemax show Hunted, and a puzzle box.  I really like the fact that the letter was folded in such a way as to give me an in-game message above the fold, and a polite promotional letter below.

It’s shaped like the Byzantium Security logo (more or less), and rattles when you shake it, which means there must be something inside.

There’s something poetic about this puzzle box – and this might be me reading too much into it.  If you haven’t played through the test yet, go do it.  Everything in the experience is designed to make you feel smart, with nerve-wracking and sometimes disturbing tests that (mostly) turn out to be easier than you expected.

That’s pretty much the experience of opening this puzzle box.  Opening it involves a bit of guesswork adjusting your grip and pulling at pieces.  But once it begins to move, you’re rewarded with a gorgeous view of the box opening like an iris.

The puzzle is made of three pieces, one of which has a little hollow that hides a gunmetal-colored miniature USB stick, bearing the Byzantium Security logo.

Each piece also has a set of three letters etched into a face that’s hidden when the box is closed.  (Etched with LASERS, by my reckoning!)

Thank goodness we’ve got some clues here, because the files on that USB are all password protected.  I’ve unscrambled the letters to form a word, but that doesn’t seem to be the password.  Any ideas?  Tell me on Twitter.

I’m not able to give this a proper review because I’m a bit pressed for time this week, but I will say this is a classic piece of ARG swag.  It’s a puzzle box with a puzzle inside.  I love how every item is its own call to action – the box invites you to open it, the USB invites you to look at the files inside, the files themselves are encapsulated in a ZIP file called UNLOCK_ME.zip.

The campaign was created by Campfire, which is famous for its ability to build atmosphere and establish a mood.  This item is similar in tone to the rest of the campaign – on the outside, it’s a rather naturalistic and simple test of your abilities – and on the inside, it’s a polished and highly artificial experience.  It’s also a highly personal one – the puzzle it leads to exists on a physical piece of media in your possession, not on a website.

The only thing I can find to criticize about this object is that sometimes, you can open the box too quickly, sending one of the three pieces flying.  My dad and sister managed to send one skittering off the kitchen counter and break it – luckily, though, the wood glue was close at hand.

All in all, it’s a very slick, simple artifact that gets right to the heart of its subject matter.  Now if I could just figure out that password….

Aha!  Password cracked!  It had to be capitalized (not all caps or all lower case).  The files contain a bunch of high quality promotional stuff for Hunted, as well as a video and links that urge you to visit the two main landing sites for the experience.  I was expecting more puzzley goodness or some extra narrative bits, but if I’d experienced this in the proper order (mailer, then website) the site would have probably been enough of a payoff.  Still, looking at a multi-page announcement press release for the show is always going to break the flow of your immersive experience.

As always, if you’ve got something you’d like to see carefully photographed and then scrutinized here, send it my way.

Aug 30, 2012

Swag Review: Deadly Affairs

This is the start of a series wherein I review the physical objects from various transmedia projects. If you have a project and you want to send me something for review, drop it in the mail.

Today, I’m looking at a box I recently got from Investigation Discovery, leading to a short ARG that’s playing for the new show Deadly Affairs. The team was kind enough to send this to me after it was released to players, because I told them I wanted to start reviewing game swag.

Before I opened it, my mother saw the package with its return address (Susan Lucci, Investigation Discovery) and was perplexed – she’s the ID fan in the house, not me. By now you might have seen it, but here’s some lovely photos anyway.
We’ve got a shiny black box with the program branding on it:

…and inside, a card…

…and tied to the card, a key.

This isn’t a very complicated or very ambitious mailer. The key is a craft store buy, and I happen to know that because I built the key for the Ladies’ Mechanical Companion out of an identical one.

This is basically serving the same role as a postcard – just like the Random Acts of Fusion viewmaster that was sent out last month, and which I’m still writing my review of. From the mismatched sticker on the front of the box (it’s more matte than the box itself, making the sticker look cheaper than it likely is) to the fact that there it contains so little for its size, my first impression is that there could have been a lot more going on here – especially because the design of the website tugs at my artifact-loving heart strings.

Can you imagine if the mailer had half this stuff in it? Family photos, ticket stubs, a fashion label tag, a receipt for a romantic dinner, a business card, a tiki-themed party invitation, a napkin with a phone number – by the time you read this, this list will be incomplete because new virtual artifacts are being added constantly. All with little, elegant calls out to the experience’s various bits of content, in old school ARG style. Love. So much love. Getting the equivalent of this in the mail would have been so boss.

So the question is, if you’re going to send out a postcard mailer, why even bother tying a key to it and putting it in a box? In this case, it works with the overall experience design, and I think this shows how far a strong design goes in making a good piece of tangible work.

Players’ first interaction with the website was to open a virtual box using a “key” (a code provided on the card), so Deadly Affairs sent out physical boxes with physical keys in them. The relationship between the artifact and the online experience is clear, and the call to action is simple but compelling – if you give someone a key, how can they NOT use it?  It’s trip and fall simple.

There are no puzzles here, nor is the mailer in character, but it sets up Lucci’s role in the experience – half Greek chorus, half eyebrow-cocked gossip. Hers is the voice of someone who knows a story, but wants to draw out her story as long as possible, dropping little hints along the way to keep you at the height of suspense. (I can only assume this is the way the show will feel, too, because it’s the way *every program on Investigation Discovery feels.* I can’t be the only child of ID fans who gets the urge to google the case fifteen minutes into a show.)

Ultimately, a lot more could have been done with this, and it still feels like a waste of opportunity and resources not to include some of the artifacts from the virtual box in the physical one. But for what it’s supposed to do, it works. I can’t see shoehorning in more items just to have more items if it doesn’t work with the structure of the experience. Hopefully, ID will start doing more stuff like this, because if any brand lends itself to ARG, it has to be them. Maybe next time we’ll get something more robust.

Note: I have two friends working on this experience. I am not, nor am I privy to any of their creative decisions on this project.

Have some swag you’d like to see lovingly lambasted?  Go right ahead and send it to me.