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The Chris Saviano effect

“I saw the most disturbing sign on Times Square today,” my friend said to me over the phone. “There was this man holding a sign that said ‘FBI Agent Chris Saviano stop raping my wife’.”

What? That’s odd, I thought. Interested, I took a break from development to Google the sign’s primary identifier, Chris Saviano, only to find a plethora of information on the sign-wielder and the peculiarity of the event. What really was the case with Saviano? Was this some kind of sick, conspiracy-theorist joke, or was this yet another attempt at a weird vector into viral marketing, much like those crazy Emily billboards first sprouting in NYC and expanding out to other major cities?

Research shows that the guy holding the sign is actually a man by the name of Farhad Khoiee-Abassi, and according to Chicagoist he’s a regular in The Loop. When questioned, Khoiee responds minimally. Further research yields Cook County court records that show that he’s in a two-year-long court battle with his wife, Shabnam Vahabinazhad, resulting in protection orders, custody battles, and Khoiee-Abassi’s self-representation after his attorney was dropped. To Farhad, Chris Saviano is a brutal enemy to which he is entirely powerless: Saviano is a member of an invincible bureaucratic elite, able to destroy the lives of a family with no legal recourse. To Vahabinazhad and Saviano (if Saviano actually exists,) Khoiee-Abassi is merely an insane man helplessly representing himself in court, making a mockery of himself and the judicial system. Is a corrupt government entity holding Farhad’s wife hostage and keeping an assassination watch on any of Farhad’s allies, or is Farhad just a bitter divorcée wanting slanderous revenge? We, as citizens and observers, may never know. And we most certainly like it.

The surrealism of intangible reality

After all, the Saviano story is coupled with plenty of actuality, but its Orwellian surrealism brings out the inner conspiracy theorist. Even if Farhad was right, our ability to support the cause to bring Saviano to justice is nil. Without vigilantism, we have built ourselves into a horrible trap of police brutality by design. The Saviano plot’s characters are too intangible, and there’s nothing we can do but hack away at Google and FOIA court records for information. We are compelled to solve the problem.

This surrealism has also proven itself to be wildly successful in the mainstream commercial marketplace: look at Dan Brown’s ubiquitous Da Vinci Code, outlining a secret society known as the Priory of Sion, with plot twists and turns into a severely deceptive yet entirely believable world. ABC’s Lost television series, as well as its interactive alternate reality game The Lost Experience have proven to be commercial successes with a fanatical user base. Unanswered questions can sell us things easily, without us paying any direct attention to the product itself.

And, as sad as it is, my first reaction to the Chris Saviano story was that it had to be viral marketing or an alternate reality game. If it wasn’t, it easily could be one.

Selling catnip with curiosity

It’s the job of thousands in advertising agencies everywhere to sell products to consumers, regardless of method. Viral marketing is one of the biggest ad industry trends right now, and its successes are hit-or-miss. The trick to true viral marketing or alternate reality games is to keep the product secondary to the plot: spread the misinformation and realism on liberally, and the actual message at hand will be concealed.

Regardless of my current ad agency internship, I still have my alliances with journalism, and alternate reality games (as well as other fictional “realities”, such as hoaxes,) both fascinate me as a curious citizen as well as hold at its centre a key tenet despicable to journalism: blur reality and fact with fiction to a point where the line is indistinguishable from truth. A journalist is committed to truth, and, as a journalist for my student paper, I was (and still am) committed to truthful information. As an advertising creative, my primary objective is to sell a product. With stories like the Chris Saviano saga, you can sell catnip through the own cat’s curiosity for peculiar events. However, you can just as easily strangle the cat in the net of deception.

The step too far

It occurred to me, however, that the rules of the alternate reality game could become even more despicable and lowbrow. With stories like the Chris Saviano story, you have the mysterious plot of a most likely mentally deranged man. You have actual court records and a real investigation. You have a viral following of a story and an established record of entry spanning months. Due to the complexity of the issue at hand, and the large amount of bloggers actively exploring the subject, one could easily build their own misinformation into the story with nothing but an extremely informative blog post. It is sickening, deceptive, and above all too powerful for our viral society, clean and real enough to evade detection.

It is the paranoia-laced story like Farhad’s Saviano story that leave dangerously exploitable loopholes. And yes, I’m telling you the idea that we all secretly hoped was impossible is entirely possible: it is stories like the Chris Saviano story that could effectively be hijacked, exploited, and have content inserted, harnessing an existing zeitgeist and controlling it on strings like a marionette. With so much fact and yet so much room for fiction, one could build an alternate reality into an actual event. It takes the tragedy of a real person and exploits it for commercial use. It is immoral (and I certainly would never take part in its execution,) but I’m surprised that it hasn’t happened. Building fiction into fact and destroying the sanctity of any and all associated fact is entirely possible.

Maintaining the sideshow’s plot is easy, too. By keeping up-to-date on the real occurances, a skilled team of copywriters could forge new situations and characters to fall in line with real events. If someone from the real side of things dismissed the storyline as a hoax, conspiracy theorists would easily keep the story alive and everyone guessing. Meanwhile, the authenticity of the actual events and identities outside of the game are invulnerable. As long as the story is effectively established somewhere along the timeline, the game keeps itself alive even if separated, as the personal interaction of amateur investigators keeps the plotline expanding virally under the control of a puppetmaster.

It is at this point that the conspiracy gets drastically deeper: corporate America could actually control part of the story, but you don’t know who to believe and who not to. Everything is thousands of levels more complex. There is truth, and there is an abstraction layer of surreal deception lying on top of it that is impossible to break, clinging onto a real event like a commercial parasite, damaging societal trust and the sanctity of factual information. The Chris Saviano effect sounds like something out of a science fiction novel, but although it is a commercial theory that I sincerely hope is never tested, it is a threat to the integrity of information that is completely conceivable and entirely real.

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