Most of us are aware of the well-publicized dangers that...

April 15, 2004|By MIKE HIMOWITZ

Most of us are aware of the well-publicized dangers that lurk on the Internet today - viruses, worms, spyware, PC hijackers and the like. From time to time, though, I like to write about the Web's lesser-known, but no less insidious hazards.

A couple of months ago, I exposed a conspiracy by parents who post home videos of the kids and vacations on the Web, download them at the office, and use them to torture their co-workers. As far as I can determine, there are no federal regulations forbidding this kind of workplace harassment.

Last week, I discovered another danger - environmental lunacy - right here in the newsroom. It was a quiet afternoon, and I was working a story for the next day's paper when I heard a commotion.

Turning around, I saw a half-dozen people standing around a desktop computer, giggling insanely.

"Tell him to dance," one shouted. More giggling.

"Tell him to stand on his head," said another. More laughter.

Never being one to let a looming deadline stand in the way of a good time, I ambled over and found my distinguished colleagues gazing at a Web page that displayed a guy wearing a cheesy chicken costume, standing in the living room of a downscale apartment.

"Tell him to play baseball," somebody said. The owner of the PC typed "play baseball" in a form at the bottom of the screen, and sure enough, the chicken pantomimed a swing at a fastball. More merriment.

I won't say how long this went on because it's embarrassing. Nor will I go into detail about the things our staff asked the chicken to do (a few of which he wisely refused). Suffice it to say that subservientchicken.com had claimed yet another office full of victims, including me - along with a couple of million others who have cackled over this insane time-waster since it appeared a week ago.

If you have to ask what's so funny about typing commands to a guy in a chicken suit, I suggest you turn to the editorial page, the obits or some other serious section - right now. This is about silly stuff, and the people who put it on the Web.

Obviously, somebody had put in a lot of time to get the chicken running. But subservientchicken.com didn't leave many clues, other than a single link to a Burger King Web page. A search of traditional news archives turned up nothing, but a Google search returned 1,300 references, all from the Web log community. Bloggers, it seems, had been buzzing about the site for days, well below the mainstream radar. Some of them, who obviously had too much time on their hands, compiled lists of hundreds of commands that the chicken would obey.

The Whois.net database showed that subservientchicken.com was registered to Crispin Porter + Bogusky, which turns out to be a bleeding-edge advertising agency in Miami that specializes in off-the-wall marketing. In addition to Ikea and Virgin Atlantic, it recently snagged the $340 million Burger King account (a major clue).

I talked to Alex Bogusky, the firm's creative director, who said subservientchicken.com was part of a campaign to call attention to his client's chicken sandwiches. And offering the public a chicken that obeyed commands would illustrate the company's longtime motto, "Have it your way."

Of course.

The Web site went up for testing a week before the launch of a Burger King TV campaign (mainly on outlets like the Spike channel, which caters to 20-somethings who count neither carbs nor calories). The ad agency folks sent messages about it to a handful of friends for their reaction. Obviously, there's a market for absurdity because they spread the word. Within 24 hours, Bogusky said, the site had registered a million hits - and 20 million in a week - before the first TV ads aired.

"It's gotten completely out of control," he said, sounding not at all upset by the development.

As tacky as it looks, the subservient chicken is not a low-budget bird. Bogusky said the costume was designed by Stan Winston Studios, the outfit that created the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park. The chicken is played by an actor who specializes in animal roles.

It also took sophisticated programming to interpret visitors' commands and match them with 400 separate video clips.

Bogusky said the average visitor spends seven to eight minutes typing commands to the chicken, which is astounding for a commercial Web site and could make this the best example of viral marketing since The Blair Witch Project.

Not surprisingly, he sees this experiment as the future of Web advertising: "More and more, you're going to be forced to give the public some value if you're going to expect them to spend time on your Web site," he said.

It's hard to say how much value there is in a dancing chicken, but if you're in the mood to waste time, the Web is full of other places to do it. PC magazine, for example, recently ran an article about the 100 best undiscovered Web sites, a couple of which are guaranteed to put a dent into your productivity, your pocketbook or both.

I happily wasted a couple of hours at 1moregame.com, which is home to two dozen delightful Java games that download to your Web browser. They're addictive and so easy to learn that you won't even care that the site is in German.

If you're in the market for an original Dukes of Hazzard wristwatch, an unopened set of Wacky Pack stickers, a 1980s-era Saddam Hussein key chain or a full retail display of SuperBalls, pay a visit to stupid.com - an online repository of some of the world's most fascinating schlock. Even if you don't buy anything, you'll be entertained by this monument to dubious taste.

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