When déjà vu is just a marketing stunt online

By James Cook on October 17th, 2013

“In January 2006 in New York, the patient of a well-known psychiatrist draws the face of a man that has been repeatedly appearing in her dreams. In [sic] more than one occasion that man has given her advice on her private life. The woman swears she has never met the man in her life.”

That’s the claim that thisman.org makes. Since 2009, internet users have claimed to see the same man in their dreams, often describing him as looking exactly like the identikit image on the website.

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Posters were seen in cities across the world. New York, Berlin, Stockholm, Rome… the list goes on. More and more people claimed to have seen the familiar-looking man in their dreams, even going so far as to draw their own versions of his face and email them to the campaign’s organisers.

People claimed to have either seen the dream man before visiting the site or to have been visited by him after seeing his familiar face. An unsourced list of dreams on the website chronicled some of the most common visitations.

As the “man in everyone’s dream” went viral, 4chan users sensed that something was not quite right. A reverse-IP lookup on the website revealed it to be hosted by an Italian company. That same hosting company also hosted another website that gave the game away: guerrigliamarketing.it.

The whole thing had been a marketing stunt. The identikit image created from drawings made by a psychiatric patient was actually generated by a computer program. The reason why the face looked so familiar to people around the world was that the computer program used a combination of familiar facial features to create an unnerving sense of déjà vu.

If this was a marketing stunt, what did it promote? The site was, allegedly, an experiment. The This Man website was created by Italian viral marketing expert and sociologist Andrea Natella.

As the legend spread and posters were erected around the world, the site reportedly came to the attention of Bryan Bertino, the film director behind 2008 Liv Tyler horror movie The Strangers. He then created a movie named This Man based around the phenomenon and acquired the website.

At least, that’s the company line for the film now stuck in development hell. In truth, it’s almost certain that the This Man site was created as a guerrilla marketing campaign specially for the film.

According to a press release for the film, it follows “an ordinary guy” who discovers that “people he has never met are seeing him in their dreams… [n]ow he must find out why he is the source of nightmares for strangers all over the world”.

While the ill-fated movie never came to fruition, the This Man stunt proved to be a success for Andrea Natella. His previous stunts, such as a fake UFO landing and an “illegal” art show attracted only local press coverage. With This Man, Natella proved that he could, with the internet, go further than real world stunts, and create a marketing campaign that had people across the world talking.

Natella’s unique theory behind marketing can be found in an English translation of a paper he published titled “Viral ‘K’ Marketing”. In the document he outlines his methodology, and his techniques for viral marketing.

“The social sharing environment becomes a resource that allows the virus to mutate in order to infect unexpected targets. ‘Type K’ campaigns may latently survive within social networks and therefore, reemerge in a new way in order to adapt to the social climate.”

At the end of the document lies one of the first admissions that the This Man project was a stunt:

Andrea Natella is partner and creative director of KOOK Artgency with whom he realized the thisman.org project.

Natella alternates between a blurry photograph and a stylised version for his online presence.

Natella alternates between a blurry photograph and a stylised version for his online presence.

After the This Man project rose to prominence, Natella stopped his freelance work and became a partner at Italian guerrilla “artgency” Kook. Perhaps the final say in this audacious stunt can be found at Kook’s website, where they list the This Man website as a “special” project.

“A true story and a strong narrative. A simple website, a sketch made ​​by computer and some leaflets in various languages ​​affixed in a dozen cities around the world.

“So the face of a man, drawn in the waiting room of a psychiatrist in New York, becomes a real blockbuster global media in which dreams and reality mingle in the network.”