By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Both partners knew they had to work fast. Their clever marketing ploy didn't make sense if it didn't take advantage of all the media hype surrounding the year 2000 and the public's fears of Y2K. Here was a lone man who was willing to bet his virtual survival on the fact that no computer glitches would occur with the dawning of the new millennium. The DotComGuy was technology's hero, its champion, its friend.
He was also a friend to corporate types who seemed to buy off on the concept like nobody's e-business. Where else could the Mr. Rogers of the Internet give them a PG-rated Webcast that would promote their products to the AOL crowd? But Critcher felt that traditional banner advertising on the Web really didn't work. Besides, no one was willing to advertise on a Web site that didn't exist yet.
So through a friend of a friend, Critcher contacted International Promotions, a Los Angeles product placement firm that specializes in convincing producers to put computers in their movies. International agreed to test the corporate waters. The pitch was simple enough: The DotComGuy can demonstrate the benefits of e-commerce by putting your product in action. Once the first sponsor signed on, the thing took on a life of its own. UPS, mall.com, Gateway Inc., peapod.com -- all fell in line. And why not invest in two kids with a goofy idea? Didn't they embody the spirit of the Internet? Aren't they the reason the NASDAQ rose a record 86 percent in 1999?
In six weeks, DotComGuy, Inc. raised nearly $1 million in sponsorships. What the company wasn't prepared for was the onslaught of media attention that would begin in mid-December. It didn't seem to matter that this was a gimmick, a marketing tool, a novel way to make a buck. Here was the Truman Show and EDtv come to life. Here was a how-to program combined with reality television -- former PBS handyman Bob Vila joining the cast of MTV's The Real World. Here was an Everyman who was willing to prove all the e-commerce ad hype that the Internet was a safe, dependable place to shop.
USA Today was the first national publication to bite, says DotComGuy publicist Stephanie Germeraad. "After that, the rest just snowballed." She had 40 to 60 media requests a day. The DotComGuy hadn't even set foot in the Dotcompound, and he was already doing 15 interviews a day. The company never spent a dime on advertising, yet the DotComGuy's name would receive a billion media impressions, says Germeraad, which is the combined potential readership and viewership of all the media that ran stories on him.
On January 1, 2000, at noon, when Broadcast.com began streaming video of the DotComGuy around the globe, all the media hype paid off. According to Critcher, people spent a total of 2,000,000 minutes watching the Webcast in its first four days. And 60 percent of those people returned to see him again. With the speed of the Internet, groups of fans instantly sprung up as far away as Germany, Japan, and Australia. DotComGuy began receiving tens of thousands of e-mails. Both the media and the public couldn't seem to get enough of him.
"We created a star out of somebody who was nothing," Critcher says. "I'm not even certain why people were watching."
Let's face it: DotComGuy is no eye candy. Unlike Jennicam and her ilk, there is no hint of sexuality, no possibility that you are going to catch a glimpse of someone undressing, taking a shower, much less having sex. The DotComGuy hasn't exactly taken a vow of celibacy, but it would cause his corporate sponsorship serious concern if, after he ordered a pizza online, he started banging the delivery girl. There is a much greater likelihood that you will watch him eat some white chili with his friend Twilley, the Krameresque next-door neighbor who has become part of the cast of characters in DotComGuy's reality play about nothing. Or watch him sit at his computer and type, or hype some new Web site he's tried, or scratch his nose, or yawn or sleep or...
There's just one little problem. Staring at someone ordering groceries from peapod.com on a video stream that looks grainy, sounds tinny, and is displayed in a small box on the computer screen doesn't make for compelling programming.
Then why is it that four months after its launch, the DotComGuy Web site still gets 1.5 million hits a day? Why are user sessions in excess of 23 minutes, "which is virtually unheard of in the Internet world," according to publicist Germeraad?
Perhaps it's the surveillance feel to the video that draws in the viewership. Spying on another's private life breeds a sense of the forbidden, a feeling you're somewhere you shouldn't be. Even the most ordinary image becomes highly charged and invested with more urgency than it really has.
Looking without touching (except possibly oneself) has grown into a cultural obsession. But when reality programs like Cops or The Real World or even DotComGuy offer unprecedented access into a person's private life, it can also create a fabricated intimacy. "Most people [in our audience] say he has become their friend," Critcher says. "They want to know what he is going to do next. 'Is he not going to eat breakfast today? No, he's going to cook toast.' Maybe it's about the boredom in their own lives."