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Want To Get Inside Your Favorite Show? Go To Comic-Con

The swarms of fans are gone from San Diego, and the elaborate displays that spilled out of the city's convention center during Comic-Con have been dismantled. Nonetheless, the studios and networks are already planning next year's show, because Comic-Con is the sweet spot for a peculiar kind of advertising that's at its peak here.

It's called immersive — or experiential — marketing, and it has taken off in the past few years. I ventured onto the convention floor to check out some of the displays, like the the giant installation for the TNT network show The Last Ship.

"It's basically a two-story tall ship in the middle of the convention center," says Brad Hajart, creative director for the marketing firm Brand Connections. Anywhere else, this would just be a booth, with maybe a fancy backdrop. Here, Brand Connections has built a replica ship that you can walk through that's aimed at making the show's fans feel like they're really on board.

Unlike, say, a Universal Studios ride, this is ephemeral — it's here for the week and then gone — but you can think of it as kind of a pop-up theme park, with all the details you'd expect. "So you're going to see we've got literally like all the kind of control centers right here," Hajart demonstrates. "Everything's lit up, knobs, you can turn all kinds of stuff."

Virtual reality headsets are a big trend this year — but they're not for the faint of stomach.
/ Marcelo Miranda
Marcelo Miranda
Virtual reality headsets are a big trend this year — but they're not for the faint of stomach.

Next to the control panel sits a set of bulky Oculus Rift virtual reality headsets — Hajart's team straps one onto my head, claps earphones over my hears and suddenly I'm hunting bad guys on an eerie ship.

Full disclosure: Oculus Rift is not for the faint of stomach. Like me. But Kendall Whitehouse says virtual reality is the latest thing — he's the technology and media editor for Knowledge@Wharton, the business school's online journal. "One of the things that's characteristic of Comic-Con is the people that come here want something they're not going to get elsewhere."

Like, say, the chance to try cutting-edge technology that won't be in your living room anytime soon. But here's the question: Installations like The Last Ship can cost anywhere from a quarter million to a million dollars. Isn't that a lot of money to spend on people who are already fans? Whitehouse says that's true, but it's also not uncommon for these fans to have huge social media followings. "So yes, they may be preaching to the choir, but I think they hope it's an influential choir."

Immersive marketing is a pretty new phenomenon — networks and studios are the ones who can afford it, and they've been building this kind of outsized presence at the convention over the past seven or eight years. Improving technology helps, too — particularly the virtual reality, according to Brand Connections' Hajart. "It's finally accessible; it's finally at a kind of quality level from an experience standpoint that it's worth investing in."

One of the things that's characteristic of Comic-Con is the people that come here want something they're not going to get elsewhere.

Just three years ago, he says, it was unusual to find an installation as big as The Last Ship — now, when you look around the convention floor, displays tower to the ceiling in every direction.

There's kind of an arms race among companies to see who can put on the most spectacular show — and outside the convention center, things get even bigger — The Walking Dead has filled the local ballpark with zombies, there's a block-long obstacle course dedicated to the video game Assassin's Creed, and the cable network Adult Swim has a miniature carnival set up by the water, complete with a giant dome that may look familiar to fans of the cartoon Aqua Teen Hunger Force: A giant anthropomorphic lump of ground meat (that'd be Meatwad, for those of you who don't watch the show).

Inside, it's blessedly air-conditioned, and it's packed with people looking up at a planetarium-style projection called the Meatwad Full Dome Experience, a trippy journey through the character's head.

Amantha Walden is the senior director of events for the Adult Swim network, which produces Aqua Teen Hunger Force. She says the dome took a year to design and build, mostly because programming the video was a challenge.

"What's being done in this format is planetarium shows and that kind of thing, so it's a little difficult to find someone who understands what you just saw."

Adult Swim has been at Comic-Con for eight years, but it has been running the carnival for only three. This is the only place you're going to see Meatwad, partly because this is the only place there's space for him. "This doesn't go out on tour, it isn't on television," Walden says. "And that's really, I think was really our goal this year, was to create something for our fans to connect with us and connect with each other, here."

So really, immersive marketing is as much a once-a-year treat for fans as it is an actual advertising campaign — though even hardcore fans may find something new. Fans like Alma Perez and Leticia Valdes, from San Diego, who say they love the network.

"Actually I found out about some new shows just by coming here, so I'm going to check out some of the new shows Adult Swim has," Alma says. "Pretty much, yeah," her friend chimes in. "I'm telling other people who are not familiar with this, hey, come check it out."

But, they say, the very best thing about the Meatwad Full Dome experience was ... the air conditioning.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Petra Mayer (she/her) is an editor (and the resident nerd) at NPR Books, focusing on fiction, and particularly genre fiction. She brings to the job passion, speed-reading skills, and a truly impressive collection of Doctor Who doodads. You can also hear her on the air and on the occasional episode of Pop Culture Happy Hour.