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A wooden swing, padded with green shag carpet, hangs from the cavernous ceiling of experiential marketing agency Fake Love’s headquarters in Brooklyn. When you sit on the swing, don a pair of headphones and kick your legs, a light projection featuring the company’s logo spirals on the adjacent wall, synced to spacey music. As you swing higher, the music crescendos and the glowing graphics get wilder. Eight-bit skulls and stars swirl in an animated vortex. The wall starts to look like a portal that might suck you into another dimension. 

cofounders Josh Horowitz, executive director,
and Layne Braunstein, chief creative officer.

This interactive swing, which Fake Love hand-built and coded, is a small-scale example of the agency’s playful experimentation with augmented reality. It’s also a simple illustration of the oft-misunderstood term experiential design. Founded in 2010, Fake Love promotes major brands with immersive, wildly imaginative multimedia spectacles, from light-projected racetracks for Lexus to virtual reality (VR) videos for the New York Times Company, which acquired the agency last year. 

If Fake Love’s work often seems the stuff of science fiction, that’s because “we live and breathe science fiction,” says Layne Braunstein, chief creative officer and cofounder. His office is decorated with Star Wars storm trooper figurines, concept drawings for Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and a collection of vintage sci-fi books by Aldous Huxley and Philip K. Dick. In addition to corporate work for brands like Google, Levi Strauss & Co. and Twitter, the 25-person agency maintains a steady output of independent experiments, such as the office swing and apps like Crystal Eye, which transforms digital photos into psychedelic art pieces. Many projects involve open-sourced programming. “The people here are writing the code everyone else uses,” says Josh Horowitz, executive director and cofounder. “Everyone here is really nerdy,” Braunstein adds. 

But they’re not just techie sci-fi nerds: everyone on the team has an art background. Braunstein studied digital media at the University of Florida; Horowitz studied fine arts and advanced digital applications at New York University, then did stints as a high school painting teacher and an animation director at Nickelodeon. Director of technology Blair Neal studied electronic arts and spent years designing live visuals for indie pop acts like Girl Talk. “We look at ourselves as artists that happen to work in advertising,” Braunstein says. 

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Fake Love’s art chops mean that elegance of design and originality of concept always take priority over savvy technology. “We never lead a project from a tech standpoint,” Horowitz says. “It’s very much the opposite. If, at the end of the day, the best idea is a bunch of giant inflatable balls bouncing around Central Park, then we’ll do that. Whatever we do to bribe someone to have an emotional, entertaining experience can be based in technology, but it doesn’t have to be.”

It’s his artful approach that attracted the New York Times Company to Fake Love. In August 2016, as part of an effort to use branded content to offset declines in print and digital advertising, the company folded Fake Love into its internal marketing arm, T Brand Studio, although the agency will continue to operate independently. The acquisition “was about delivering something NBDB—never been done before,” says Sebastian Tomich, senior vice president of advertising and innovation. “We were impressed by [Fake Love’s] talent. Layne has that rare blend of a deep knowledge of technology with a brilliant creative mind. I’ve worked with a lot of creatives in my day, and that’s not easy to come by.” 

The New York Times Company first collaborated with Fake Love in 2015, when it commissioned a 360-degree VR video to promote the Weinstein Company’s Oscar-nominated film Carol. The fourth piece of VR advertising since the launch of NYT VR—a mobile app that, through Google Cardboard, enables users to view New York Times stories as immersive experiences—Carol: “Dearest…” was the first promotion of its kind for any movie studio. 

“The mantra behind the project was: How can we develop something that you can play more than once and have more than two different experiences?” Tomich says.

Fake Love knew that simply making a traditional movie preview in VR format wouldn’t achieve this goal; the agency refuses to use novel mediums as gimmicky shortcuts. “Whenever there’s a shiny new toy, that’s all anyone wants to play with,” Horowitz says. “VR is great, immersive and a really unique way to experience media, but VR isn’t an idea. If you have a crappy idea, it’s gonna be crappy in 360 degrees.” 

The idea behind Carol: “Dearest…” was to create “a sliver of insight into the feeling of the film,” Horowitz says. As a VR collage, it cobbles together scenes, set pieces and tiny moments from director Todd Haynes’s beautifully crafted world. “We wanted it to feel like this waking dream, where time isn’t linear,” Horowitz says. Dreamy snowfall, flowers on a trellis, winding toy trains and floating lights surround the viewer; you can spy Cate Blanchett as Carol dining in a restaurant. At the video’s launch, Google Cardboard headsets delivered to New York Times print subscribers enabled 1.3 million readers to inhabit this surreal amalgam of Carol’s world. 

We never lead a project from a tech standpoint. It’s very much the opposite. If, at the end of the day, the best idea is a bunch of giant inflatable balls bouncing around Central Park, then we’ll do that. Whatever we do to bribe someone to have an emotional, entertaining experience can be based in technology, but it doesn’t have to be.” —Josh Horowitz

After the project’s success, the New York Times Company decided to acquire Fake Love. “When you connect the best creative minds in the industry with the newest technology and then connect that to a power like the New York Times, you’re going to have a pretty killer offering,” Tomich says. 

Fake Love is one of the first marketing agencies of its kind. “The job I have now isn’t a job that existed five or six years ago,” Neal says. Most advertisers didn’t start using mediums like projection mapping or augmented reality until recently. But despite all their technical sophistication, Fake Love’s projects have a lowest-common-denominator emotional appeal. “We think about a Fisher-Price aesthetic: merging a sense of childhood wonder and simplicity with retro-futuristic nostalgia,” Braunstein says. “If you can’t figure out our installations in a few seconds, not unlike a kid’s toy, it’s a fail. Part of the magic of what we do is the discovery. If you’re spending time reading instructions, that magical discovery is lost.” 

Fake Love’s promotion for the high-performance Lexus IS Hybrid is a thirteen-year-old Mario Kart fanatic’s fantasy. The agency created a life-sized, light-projected car-racing video game, staged in a massive aircraft hangar near Rome. “It was a unique opportunity, as Lexus knew what it wanted—a life-sized video game—but had no preconceived notions of how to do it,” says film director Alan Bibby, who hired Fake Love for the project. “We were faced with the challenge that it had to be for real—we couldn’t fake it in post-production. The demand was for both a compelling film and a huge live event.” 

Fake Love came up with a clever solution: it recruited Formula 1 racer Jarno Trulli to drive the Lexus IS Hybrid while ten contest-winning Lexus fans did rotations in the passenger seat. As Trulli drove, the contestants traced a racecourse in real time on a touch tablet program, designed and coded by Fake Love, that projected the agency’s designs onto the hangar’s floor in white light. A custom infrared camera system tracked the car’s screeching hairpin turns around the improvised glowing racecourse as Trulli earned points for picking up gold coins and lost points for leaving the projected routes. 

Footage of the dazzling live event became Trace Your Road, a broadcast commercial campaign accompanied by a behind-the-scenes documentary that now boasts more than 2.3 million views. “What makes Fake Love special is their approach of coming up with a creative solution first, then figuring out how to do it using technology,” Bibby, who directed the project, says. “They aren’t just technologists or engineers, but artists, too.”

If you can’t figure out our installations in a few seconds, not unlike a kid’s toy, it’s a fail. Part of the magic of what we do is the discovery. If you’re spending time reading instructions, that magical discovery is lost.” —Layne Braunstein

This approach also accounts for the success of Music Lifts You Up, a concert for the hearing impaired, starring electronic dance music (EDM) prodigy Martin Garrix. “The client, 7UP, had an insight that the deaf community loves EDM music—it’s quite visceral; they can feel it,” Horowitz says. “The idea really interested us: How can people who can’t hear still feel and experience music?”

To turn an EDM show into a full-body, multisensory experience, Fake Love decked out a music venue for an all-deaf audience. The agency envisioned the space as the soundtrack itself: Walls were covered in speaker cones for the audience to touch, and the bass vibrated through padded flooring. Smoke machines and live visuals announced the beat drop. In the video of the event, crowds of deaf EDM fans dance—some wearing SUBPAC-like vibrating backpacks—and press their chests to the speakers on the walls. 

More than 4 million people watched the video of the concert, which one audience member called “the best night of [his] whole life.” It demonstrates how Fake Love’s projects “allow people to communicate with each other globally,” as Horowitz says. “Even though a lot of our projects are site specific, they have a global digital reach.”

That reach is showcased in Fake Love’s spin on the famous 1971 Coca-Cola Hilltop campaign, “I’d like to buy the world a Coke.” Commissioned by Google to create a 21st-century remix of the Mad Men–era campaign, the agency hacked soda vending machines in cities around the world, adding touchscreens and webcams. From Cape Town to Buenos Aires, participants could record video messages to send to strangers at one of the hacked machines around the globe—along with a free Coke. Web banner ads enabled Internet users to send free Cokes and accompanying messages to hacked vending machines with the click of a button. The whimsical campaign, which won eight international awards, highlighted Fake Love’s knack for creating real emotional connections through its installations. 

“We don’t do stunts here,” Braunstein says. “We want people to take a piece of the brand we’re selling and for it to be stuck with them. Once you have a real emotional attachment to a brand, it’s like, you’re done. Brands are realizing that you don’t get that through commercials.” The agency’s name, Fake Love, is in part a self-aware jab at the manipulative nature of advertising. “People come to us to make other people feel a certain emotion,” Braunstein says. “We know we want people to feel a big ‘wow’ moment or cry or get excited when they look at something we’ve made. But these are fake emotions because they’re designed to sell something.”

The word fake also suggests the designers’ past, when they felt like outsiders in the advertising world, before being enthusiastically welcomed upon the old guard’s realization that futuristic experiential design might be the future of the industry. “I always feel like I’m faking it a little,” Braunstein says. “I have a strong impostor syndrome. When we won Small Agency of the Year [from Ad Age], I was like, ‘They’re gonna take it away.’” Based on the sheer ingenuity of Fake Love’s work, that doesn’t seem very likely. ca

Carey Dunne (careymdunne@gmail.com) is a Brooklyn-based writer covering arts and culture. Her work has appeared in Fast Company, Time Out, Hyperallergic and Brooklyn Magazine

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