Late last week, people on Twitter started noticing sponsored tweets promoting the island of Eroda, linking to a website advertising its picturesque views, marine life, and seaside cuisine.
The only catch? Eroda doesn’t exist. It’s completely fictional. Musician/photographer Austin Strifler was the first to notice, bringing attention to it in a long thread that unraveled over the last few days.
The Visit Eroda website is full of strange details:
- It’s dated copyright 2004, but the domain was registered on October 28 of this year.
- Rotating banner ads on the site are served locally, and just point back to the Eroda homepage.
- Some mysterious copy. In the description of the Eroda Ferry, “Our recommendation? Avoid leaving Eroda on odd numbered days…” For the fishing charter, “For extra good luck, make sure you wear one gold earring…” And for the Fisherman’s Pub, “The only rule of the bar? Don’t mention a pig in the pub.”
- A map of the island was apparently generated in Inkarnate, an online fantasy map maker.
Two key facts indicated this was more than just one prankster’s internet goof, and that it was a well-funded viral campaign.
- The Eroda site is actively running a large number of ads across Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and Spotify.
- The visiteroda.com domain is managed by MarkMonitor, a relatively expensive service primarily used by large companies to manage and protect their domains.
Over the weekend, fans of Alternate-Reality Games (ARGs) raced to learn more, sharing information in a newly-created Eroda subreddit, dedicated Discord server, and crowdsourced docs.
The Eroda campaign continued to feed the mystery with a new YouTube video, and mysterious new posts on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.
The Daily Dot’s Nashwa Bawab was the first to write about the campaign, with an article on Saturday afternoon about the conspiracy theories.
Personally, I tried every trick I know to identify the owners, with no useful information. I looked at the HTML/CSS source, EXIF metadata for photos on the site, text strings in the map PDF file, IP addresses and server host, current and historical WHOIS and DNS records, reverse IP/WHOIS lookups, robots.txt, XML sitemaps, brute-forcing filenames, Google Analytics IDs, server architecture, ad tracker codes, and social network forensics.
Whoever was behind it covered their tracks well—but not well enough.
Solving the Mystery
One theory emerged from the large and obsessive Harry Styles fandom: Eroda was a promotion for Harry Styles’ upcoming album, Fine Line, due out next month on December 13.
The evidence seemed thin at first, but kept mounting. Among the clues:
- Many of the photos and video from the Visit Eroda site and social media campaigns appear to have been shot in St. Abbs, a small fishing village on the southeastern coast of Scotland, the same location where Harry Styles was filming an as-yet-unreleased music video last August.
- One of the cast members in the video sports a very unusual hairdo, elaborate pretzelesque braids. The About Eroda page says, “In particular, Erodean hairstyles have become a rather bold expression of self amongst the island’s youth.”
- Some of the place names on Eroda may reference the song titles on the album. The Fisherman’s Pub is located “on the corner of Cherry Street and Golden Way,” while the first tracks on Sides A and B of Fine Line are called “Golden” and “Cherry.” The island’s name itself, Eroda, may be a reference to the third song, “Adore You.”
- Another site launched for the new album, Do You Know Who You Are, was similarly managed by MarkMonitor, with similar coding styles for the CSS.
Any of these could be written off as coincidence.
Until last night, when Ryan J, executive producer of music magazine Down In The Pit, received a Visit Eroda ad on Facebook, and noticed that Facebook reported the ad was served to him because he’d visited Harry Styles’ official website.
This not only confirms the Eroda team is targeting Harry Styles fans, but also a clear ownership link: advertisers can only target Facebook ads to sites they’ve installed the Facebook Pixel tracker on.
In other words, Harry Styles’ official homepage and Visit Eroda are managed by the same people.
Despite all of their efforts at secrecy, the marketing agency behind this viral campaign was exposed by an unexpected source, Facebook’s ad transparency tools.
For non-fans, this may be anti-climactic or even confusing. Why would a musician launch a viral campaign like this just to promote a new album?
ARGs and other forms of transmedia storytelling are a creative way to build a world around a piece of art, whether it’s a videogame, TV show, or album, while teasing out details for dedicated fans.
Though more common in games and TV/film, bands like Twenty One Pilots, Nine Inch Nails, and AFI have all used ARGs to promote the launch of concept albums.
For Nine Inch Nails’ Year Zero (2007), clues were hidden in concert t-shirts, USB drives left at shows, and encoded in the audio waveforms in tracks on the album itself, fleshing out Trent Reznor’s vision of the dystopian world of the concept album. The clues led to an exclusive, underground Nine Inch Nails concert for his most dedicated fans.
It’s a way for an artist to express themselves beyond the work itself, and a way to involve a community of fans, joining them together to collectively solve a mystery.
It’s too early to say where this campaign is going, but I expect we’ll know on December 13. Until then, it’s a perfect example of how impossibly hard it can be to keep a secret from a global community of dedicated fans on the internet in 2019.
December 2. Today, the Visit Eroda account tweeted the teaser trailer for Harry Styles’ “Adore You” music video, resolving the mystery for any lingering skeptics.
Since this started, I’ve participated in the Discord channel and followed each new clue and development. For me, the most interesting part was watching the cultural divide between two fandoms: ARG enthusiasts and Harry Styles stans.
The Discord team was started by ARG fans, but as Harry Styles fans joined looking for new information, it became a constant source of conflict. Admins required nearly all Harry Styles-related discussion to move out of general channels, even as evidence mounted that the campaign was promotion for his album.
Many of the ARG fans, desperate for any explanation beyond Harry Styles, constantly tried to debunk solid proof like the Facebook Pixel connection.
This morning, once the video was released and all doubt removed, it triggered a wave of frustrated farewells as dozens of members quit the Discord, while the Harry Styles fans were more excited than ever.
If the goal was to energize his fan base for the release of new material, the Eroda campaign was an unmitigated success.
I know many ARG enthusiasts were hoping for something deeper, but as someone with no interest in his music, I’m still grateful to the creative team behind the island of Eroda for making the internet just a bit more mysterious, if only for a week or two.
December 6. The full “Adore You” music video premiered this morning, telling the full story of Eroda. Great song, great video.
Billboard interviewed some of the digital team at Columbia Records behind the campaign.
Sounds like the island of ‘Sans Seriffe’…
I love this article , thank you for taking the time to research and write about it and yes I’m a huge Harry Styles fan and the fans are extremely excited about about this
Oh how great!
How could I miss this one (especially being an ARG junkie for more than a decade)?
Thank you for pointing it out!
Merzmensch / alexeev_eu (both on twitter)
the discord link doesnt work
The original Eroda Discord turned into a Harry Styles Discord and deleted the invite link. The ARG fans splintered off and started a new one.