In 1992, the Sci-Fi Channel launched, giving the world Farscape, the good Battlestar Galactica and an unhealthy amount of Stargate. A fallow period for TV science fiction caused them to rebrand themselves as the SyFy Network, home of wrestling and light fantasy shows about small towns with secrets. A boom in science fiction and fantasy brought on by the likes of Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead passed them by, and the network is just now starting to re-enter the genre arena.
But during the dotcom days of 1999-2000, the Sci-Fi Network embarked on a kind of viral advertising campaign. While social media did not exist, they aired a series of mysterious, paranormal ads to get people talking about their network – and drive them to their website, tapping into the UFO craze of the 90’s to get clicks.
Most of the campaign has vanished down the memory hole, but this ad from the campaign implores you to send them any unexplainable footage:
Other ads in the campaign showed people with strange magnetic powers, and oddly behaving bugs. These are sadly lost, or at least they haven’t been uploaded to Youtube. The gist of the campaign was that normal footage would be altered with some plausible-looking supernatural element; Sci-Fi happens.
But one ad from the Sci-Fi Happens campaign became famous. One ad from this cable network’s primitive viral campaign is still hotly debated to this day. And once you see it, you’ll know why:
A tourist’s home movie captures a UFO by the Twin Towers just before it rockets past them at an impossibly fast speed. Please get the whole story at scifi.com/happens.
That 15-year old site is understandably down, and its earliest pages can’t be reached via Wayback Machine. “Flash detection failed”. A later version of the site – from October 2001 – does not reference the 9/11 video, but shows some allegedly “submitted” videos (in reality, all videos were staged). Alas, they can’t be played. The forums remain online, and I will surely dig into them later.
But the video is widely known as a hoax. The actress playing the tourist even confirmed as such – to Rense, one of the foremost conspiracy sites. The invaluable site Museum of Hoaxes breaks down all the ads in the campaign – I wish the other ones were online somewhere (or if there’s a way to get the Quicktime movies to work on Archive.org), since the ladybug and magnet videos sound interesting. It’s a staged commercial for Sci-Fi, right? No one believes it, could they?
One glance at the suggested videos demolishes that notion. “UFO SIGHTING at NEW YORK TWIN TOWERS.flv” and “WTC UFO Sighting Prior to the 9/11 Incident (ENHANCED)” have nearly 300,000 views between them.
The former video, by WHO’S WATCHING YOU OVER YOU?, relies on a “Japanese edition” of the video – apparently, the video, divorced of any context, was aired on a Japanese talk show as a genuine UFO video.
Five minutes of slow-mo follow, including a minute of inexplicable, unexplained Photoshop filters. The conclusion: if it’s a fake, someone deserves an Oscar! It can’t be a fake because we see the UFO before the woman does (no filmmaker would ever think to set up something in advance!) and because the camera is really shaky. Shaky cameras mean authenticity. Just look at that documentary Blair Witch, and that journalistic saga about that time a giant monster destroyed New York. I knew no one would make scripted movies that boring and obnoxious!
Outside of the realm of viral ads, here’s the Global UFO Network breaking down a CNN video where there’s a stray pixel on the very bottom of the screen during some 9/11 coverage. I mean, a UFO. It looks like…well, debris, probably, seen from the distance at low resolution. I enjoy how the creator breaks down their argument via Star Wars style scrolling text:
This is one of many videos claiming to find aliens among the chaos of 9/11, a strange mix of trutherism and UFOlogy. 9/11 wasn’t an inside job, they claim. It was the ultimate outside job.
Here we have a viral ad campaign divorced of all context. scifi.com/happens is long since gone, and the other videos in the series have sadly vanished. It seems that Sci-Fi, understandably, took down the WTC UFO video after 9/11. If they had showed a UFO over Chicago, or London, or Tokyo, or even just the Empire State Building, Sci-Fi Happens would have long since vanished from memory. But an ad campaign from the year 2000 lives on due to its association with a terrible act of terrorism, and the conspiracy theories it spawned. Some of these videos even imply that the “UFO” was seen just days before 9/11 – and not over a year before.
I remember this ad. I remember seeing it on the Sci-Fi Channel, back in 2000. I might have thought it was genuine, or claiming to be genuine, but then again, shows like Sightings and Unsolved Mysteries were huge back then. I was a kid, and probably assumed it was a promo for one of those shows. No one today could mistake an ad for reality, right? Not in our modern information age, where we’re savvy to hoaxery?
Have you ever heard of This Man? The man appearing in people’s dreams across the world? This story still spreads around the internet as fact – or, failing that, at least an actual urban legend or myth.
But it too was just an viral ad. In this case, a viral ad for a project that never materialized.
Paranormal video aggregators spread “real” videos of creepypasta creations like Slenderman and the Rake. Creatures invented on public web forums have believers. Slenderman’s creator is so publicly known he has an publicist and that doesn’t deter people.
More recently, conspiracy theorists seized on a leaked CIA video depicting a terrible plot to brainwash people with vaccines. The horrors of “FunVax” spread across disreputable conspiracy sites like Natural News, presented as fact. A Reddit thread on it sat at +119, and the top comments dismissed skeptics as “shills”, and uses the fact that it hasn’t been deleted as evidence that it’s true.
Based on faulty science and strangely similar to the story of Firefly’s Reavers, Snopes exposed how Funvax wasn’t just created as viral advertising – it was open viral advertising for a active Kickstarter. The spirit of Sci-Fi Happens’ believers lives on.