Across from the South by Southwest convention center, an old-fashioned church is upside down, perched precariously on its steeple. It's a promotion for AMC's show "Preacher."
A few blocks away looms a full-sized Ferris wheel with flashing red and blue lights, casting a glow on the "F-Society" arcade in its shadow — it's promoting USA's sleeper hit "Mr. Robot." A line for silk-screened T-shirts with messages from the show — "Social Media Owns Your Relationship" — snakes around the corner. Dozens of pedi-cabs and buses are emblazoned with ads for Pied Piper, the fictional company at the center of HBO's "Silicon Valley."
That show's star, Thomas Middelditch, who plays the CEO of Pied Piper, said TV networks are targeting the South by Southwest crowd in Austin, Texas, with these elaborate experiences because the tech world is increasingly mainstream.
"Even if you're not in tech you know about tech. You may not be inventing an app but you heard that the guy from Snapchat turned down $6 billion from Google or whatever it was ... and I think as a result it becomes part of the zeitgeist," he said.
At SXSW, the line between TV show entertainment and conference reality is blurred. Branded content seems to be everywhere, and if the lines for the attractions are any indication, the self-professed geeks attending the festival are eating it up. And that's a big win for the media giants pouring millions into these "activations," as these branded experiences are called.
They're designed to bring consumers into the show itself, even if it's just for as long as a ride in a bus wrapped in an ad for the fictional company "Pied Piper." The hope is that the more tweets, snaps, and Instagrams these experiences prompt, the more viewers their shows will draw.