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Dr Lynette Nusbacher Headshot

Cybergeddon: Don't Keep Calm, But Carry On!

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One of the great weaknesses of Western preparation for the strategic future of cyberspace is that we lack a coherent narrative for ordering and understanding information about network security.  A major network security firm has bankrolled a major television producer to create Cybergeddon, a series of webisodes which cross the concepts of advertorial, public information film and techno-thriller.  This is meant to give us the narrative the sponsors feel we need:  that we are none of us safe from cyber criminals.

The aim is an important one.  Big players in the cyber security market find themselves struggling to sell protection to individual consumers and to businesses of every size.  People and businesses put big brass locks on their front doors, but leave the windows of their computers and smartphones wide open.  Cybergeddon is what internet users love, a free product.  It is what viewers love, a techno-thriller.  It's all love, and on behalf of Yahoo and Symantec it's trying to create a market in locks for people who don't understand crime.

The prominent Vaio logos on computers in recent James Bond films tie in with Sony's James Bond edition of the Vaio laptop.  The wristwatch James Bond wears in each film is tied in with a James Bond version of the same Omega watch.   It's not only the recognition that makes this placement worth the price, it's the positioning:  Omega ties their products to the bespoke suits and the Aston-Martin supercars. 

This sort of corporate product placement on film is ruthlessly parodied by Orange UK in their cinema advertisements, but as anyone who knows the story of Reese's Pieces can tell you, product placement in a popular film is worth a thousand ephemeral commercials.

For those generations conditioned to expect advertising to be clearly sequestered into commercial breaks before films or during television shows corporate product placement can seem obnoxious or even sinister.  For people who grew up watching Captain Kangaroo on CBS singing along with a wind-up tube of Colgate toothpaste, tied in with Colgate's print ads and merchandising, advertising during the action is familiar.

Bond is a good match for brand placement.  In the Ian Fleming novels we knew that Bond's shirts were made from Sea Island cotton; that his cigarettes were from Morland's of Grosvenor Street lit with a Ronson lighter; that his roadster was a Bentley with, first, an Amherst Villiers and then an Arnott supercharger; and that his handgun was, first, a Beretta and then a Walther.  Fleming wasn't placing products for Morland's, and certainly not for Walther.  His choice of the new gat was influenced by Geoffrey Boothroyd, not the marketing people at Walther.  Fleming dropped the names of his favourite brands for his own reasons, but the next Bond flick will raise $45 million from branding tie-ins.

When American novelist Tom Clancy invented the techno-thriller, every piece of military and security equipment in his books was identified by its code name or nickname.  The gadget-fondling of the genre ideally suits it to product placement.

CSI combines techno-thriller with detective stories and is a feast for tech branding.  A website which uses Twitter to track product placement shows that the various brands in the CSI franchise are reported to showcase Reebok, Microsoft, Dell, Ray-Ban and Nikon.  A jaundiced view of Cisco's product placement on CSI and other shows gives a clear picture of the way brand identification can fit into programming.

While Anthony Zuiker might ensure that episodes of his CSI franchise have ample opportunities to showcase Cisco products, Cisco didn't come to Zuiker with the idea of raising public awareness of forensic science through television drama. Symantec did:  Advertorial goes beyond product placement, combining advertisement (in this case public-interest advertisement) and editorial content. 

In the first 10 minute chapter our FBI white-hat hacker heroine is shouting down the (unbranded) phone about how easy it is to fake magnetic strips, and how the US needs to adopt chip-and-pin technology for credit cards.  She calls them "pin-and-chip", presumably because chip-and-pin is a brand owned by EMVCo, who didn't help pay for the webisode.  She concisely summarises and dismisses the costs faced in converting the US payments system to chip-and-pin before killing a telecon.

While the show's sponsor, Symantec, has a partnership with banking security providers Wincor Nixdorf, we are not seeing a product placement moment.  We are seeing an issue awareness moment.  This one is almost a throwaway:  through the course of the programme (which according to the IMDB is the first of two) we get some clear and consistent messages about internet security.

A clearer commercial message is that free antivirus products aren't any good, a shot at AVG and Avast which compete with Symantec's Norton product line. 

Perhaps the most subtle but pointed message is that viruses come on USB sticks.  Over and over again we see people stick a USB stick into a hub to examine some new subspecies of virus. 

A less subtle moment is our heroine's visit to Symantec.  The key messages are that when the FBI has a tough cyber problem they take it to Symantec, and Symantec hires the best and the brightest from MIT and pays them so much they can drive the new ¬£70K+ Nissan GT-R (a more conventional product placement).

There is some mockery of a character who is so cyber-illiterate that "his password is 'password'" who has no security on his phone.  A hacker laughs mockingly at silly people who use public wifi networks.  People's mobile phone records include regularly updated GPS co-ordinates:  mock them.  The viewer is invited to mock along with the hackers and thus become more cyber-aware.

The narrative is clearly laid out:  we are all very vulnerable to cyber crime.  Even when we think we're safe, we're vulnerable.  Apart from one briefly glimpsed billboard advertising a Norton spam-blocking product we are not pushed to solutions, Symantec's or otherwise.  The narrative is concerned entirely with the problem, which avoids the appearance of sleaziness but also leaves a yawning conceptual gap.

The show has deep roots in the techno-thriller genre.  Senior Special Agent Chloe Jocelyn (British Columbian Missy Peregrym) is very much the younger sister of Angela Bennett, Sandra Bullock's character in The Net.  Not only is Jocelyn capable of making any network sit up and beg whenever she pumps a long string of code through a smartphone, she is astonishingly able to give herself an amazing hairdo using only a straight razor.  She has, with the assistance of her prosecutor mum, left behind her a dark career as a Black Hat hacker.

The conventionally pretty Chloe Jocelyn is a clear decision by executive producer Anthony Zuiker to turn away from the heavily pierced cyberpunk female hacker (as seen in both sets of Dragon Tattoo movies and on NCIS) towards a more mainstream character   Mainstream people need to be able to identify with Jocelyn in order to absorb the lessons the show is out to teach.

The film has two strong female characters, Jocelyn and a murderous Slav who is called Irina in the credits.  Played by Canadian actress Christine Horne, Irina's job is mostly to pose athletically and occasionally kill with a stiletto.   This gives the genre an important feature:  you can be tech-aware and female.  (Also, athletic and murderous.)

With one exception the male characters are enablers, soft-edged in flannelette (sometimes matching), like the pair of cheekbones played by Manny Montana and the funny hacker played by Australian Kick Gurry. 

The one exception is the evil Gustov Dobreff.  Dobreff, played by the very beautiful French actor Olivier Martinez, is a brilliant cyber-criminal who has a daughter about the same age as Jocelyn (Martinez is 14 years older than Missy Peregrym, so it's almost believable).  Dobreff intends to "return the world to the Stone Age" by disabling everything networked.  Since that would render him largely powerless (what does a cyber-criminal do for a living in a post-cyber world?) the motivation is unconvincing.

I assume that the villain is named after Orlin Dobreff, Zuiker's former assistant who makes his producing debut on the prequel zips that are also on the show's website.  I'm not sure why his first name is spelled Gustov, though.

The camera work uses some cyber-cinema-verit√©, with dropped frames mimicking dropped packets instead of the more old-fashioned unsteady hand on the camera.  The screen is frequently split, not with two action shots, but with an action shot and a computer screen shot.  This gives a feeling of multitasking on different screens, and gives some justification for the number of plasma displays we see in everybody's office.

There is much pointing of handguns in this film, which is presumably to make American viewers feel at home.  The trope of punctuating moments of drama by working the handgun's slide (ka-CLICK) makes me wonder why someone was pointing a weapon with an empty chamber in the first place.  There's an urban legend that American television and movies portray silly handgun things like that, and like holding the gun sideways, in a deliberate effort to save lives.  One can hope.

Kick Gurry's character, Rabbit Rosen, is sloppy and has an appalling haircut.  Unlike the suave, barbered hackers who work for the FBI and Symantec, Rosen is supposed to be a nerd.  Also a criminal who hustles chess in prison.  He delivers the only thin shaving of geek in the film:  a single Han Solo quote.   If the show were made for geeks, there would be some geek culture, maybe some steampunk, but this isn't made for geeks.  It's made for the mainstream, and at the end of the first webisode Rabbit is made mainstream against his will, somehow conscripted into the FBI as a Special Agent.

Cybergeddon is meant to be consumed as free mainstream entertainment, either directly, through the prequel zips, or through the game and apps.  The consumers aren't meant to notice the education part as it slips into their brains and makes them more cyber-aware.

The idea here is to use a genre that has been made popular by series like CSI and NCIS to make an advertorial to increase awareness.   Zuiker, who shows a vision of the possibilities of web entertainment that goes beyond the networks and film distributors, is betting that Cybergeddon will go viral and prove that Yahoo and Symantec spent their money wisely.  Do not be surprised if the mainstream entertainment world looks studiously away:  empowering the producer and the sponsor at the expense of the studio isn't going to make them happy.