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Times Square Video Hack Social, Not Technical

A purported hack of video displays in Times Square turns out to have been a viral marketing campaign for the movie Limitless.

A video posted to YouTube on Monday showed what appeared to be a man with a modified iPhone hijacking the video feeds on public video displays in Times Square. While a few bloggers took the hacking demonstration at face value, most of the tech savvy Internet crowd was skeptical.

On Hacker News, a news aggregation site frequented by readers with a high degree of technical literacy, most of those posting comments believed the video had been doctored.

While the hacking was faked, the supposedly unauthorized video itself really did play on the Times Square screens as shown in the YouTube clip. There was no Photoshop or other post-production trickery. Thinkmodo, a viral marketing startup based in New York City, paid to have its clips played, just like any advertiser.

"We basically rented the screens on Times Square," said Michael Krivicka, who co-founded Thinkmodo with partner James Percelay. "We had our own footage play on there, which had sync points that were looping every 60 seconds. So we basically synced up the footage on our iPhone and made it look, with rehearsed timing, like it's being hacked into. It was really simple."

Krivicka says 95% of people think that it was done in post-production. "The funny thing is that on all these post-production blogs people were saying it must have been a real pro. But it really wasn't. We like to do the exact opposite, something that you really wouldn't think of."

The YouTube video, posted under the name BITcrash44, was paid for by Relativity Media, the film company behind Limitless, which opens this weekend. It's Thinkmodo's second campaign, the first being a campaign in February that promoted a fictitious head-shaving helmet as a way to get attention for a real razor, HeadBlade.

The Times Square video has attracted over 1.2 million views so far. While the stunt certainly has garnered significant attention for his company, Krivicka says it's still too early to tell how successful the campaign will be for his client, Relativity. "The first part, the viral component, was extremely successful. It was shown on TV news stations all over the world. We are still collecting the data."

The goal now is to connect the viral event to the movie, which the firm has done through what it calls the reveal video.

Krivicka says that the overwhelmingly positive sentiment expressed in the tweets his firm has been collecting is a good sign. "People are not disappointed or let down, but they are glad they were cleverly fooled," he said.

Krivicka declined to go into too much detail about his firm's approach, but did offer some suggestions for would-be viral marketers. "We have our own little secret recipe for things, but we mainly try to stay fresh and original," he said. "We try to do things that haven't been done before."

That means a significant amount of research and campaigns built around virgin search keyword or phrases. In other words, search engine optimization is critical.

Krivicka suggested that if someone were to hear a conversation about Times Square being hacked, he would want the person's search to turn up his firm's work and not some past incident. "When you run to your desk and type [Times Square hack into a search engine], we want our video to pop up," he said.

So the due diligence for the campaign meant making sure there hadn't been a prominent Times Square hacking incident. He said the situation was similar with the HeadBlade campaign. "There were no previous postings of anything like it with those keywords," he said.

"There are different ways to do a viral campaign," Krivicka explained. "Our goal is to be edgy and original, to provide something worth talking about."

Raising questions for viewers is also important. A number of those dissecting the hacking video suggested that the scenario was implausible because you can't get video out of the iPhone's audio jack.

Krivicka says that's not true. "People don't think you can," he said. "But there's actually a cable you can get that can feed video out of the iPhone jack. You can actually get a lot more out." He points to the Square credit card reader as an example.

"But the more questions you leave open, the more you feed people to talk about, the more crumbs you leave there -- and this was one of them-- that adds to the whole conversation," he said.

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