Pwnmeal Extreme Gaming Oatmeal
PWNMEAL Extreme Gaming Oatmeal was a prank that Cards Against Humanity played at PAX East 2014. We created a fake “extreme oatmeal” brand and distributed sixty thousand packets of instant oatmeal with Cards Against Humanity cards inside to attendees of PAX.
Cards Against Humanity has been exhibiting at PAX East with Kickstarter for three years now, it’s our favorite gaming convention.
One of the special things that we do for each PAX is write a new pack of about a dozen Cards Against Humanity that we call the “PAX Pack,” which every attendee gets in their swag bag. This has become kind of a tradition at PAX, and there’s even these ad hoc stations that pop up around the convention center for people to collect and trade the new cards.
But as much as we love writing and giving away the PAX Packs, we hate that it’s become expected; the PAX Packs are the most fun when they’re surprising and delightful, not when people just expect to get free cards from us.
Pwnmeal was born on the evening of December 15th, 2013, when I tweeted:
Our events manager Trin saw this, and replied:
I wrote back:
And then Kris Straub sealed the deal:
And the rest was history:
When we got back to the office on Monday, I took a break from 12 Days of Holiday Bullshit (that was the day everyone received “5 Cards That Have Nothing To Do With The Holidays”) and got on the phone with our manufacturer in China to find out about making packets of oatmeal for PAX.
We knew from the beginning that we wanted everyone at PAX to get a packet of extreme instant oatmeal that we’d design to be as over-the-top as possible. The idea really came together once we figured out that we should put the Cards Against Humanity “PAX Pack” cards inside the packet of oatmeal as a surprise; we thought that was the best punchline possible to the joke of the oatmeal, and also a truly surprising and delightful way for attendees to get the PAX Pack that kind of recaptured the excitement of the first time people were surprised to find free cards in their swag bag.
There were a few pieces of the oatmeal opening experience that became really important to us.
- First, the joke just wouldn’t have been as funny if it was some kind of dumb viral marketing for Cards Against Humanity; we wanted to really create confusion as to what exactly PWNMEAL was. My dream was to create the illusion of an extreme oatmeal brand so convincingly that people would throw their packets out, and then go digging in the trash for them later when they realized that there were Cards Against Humanity cards inside.
- Second, we wanted to heighten the surprise of finding the cards in the oatmeal as much as possible, which meant we had to really sell the idea of an extreme gaming oatmeal. We didn’t want anyone to know that PWNMEAL was associated with Cards Against Humanity until they opened it up.
- Third, I wanted the cards to come loose in the oatmeal, covered in oat dust - I didn’t want them in a foil pack or any packaging. It was just funnier that way.
- Finally, we had to get these packets into the U.S. with FDA approval, and they had to fit into the convention center’s strict rules that ban giving away food. This was a big design challenge that we solved in two phases. Phase one was to ship the empty, printed packets to the U.S. and fill them with about an ounce each of good old domestic U.S.A. oatmeal here, so we didn’t have to worry about FDA import policies. Phase two was to hope we didn’t get caught by the convention center. In total, we ordered three tons of quick rolled oats and created about 60,000 packets of instant oatmeal. (Someone from the convention center food services department did come over to our booth looking for us, but it turns out he was just a fan and wanted to give us cupcakes).
Since Kris Straub had the original brilliant idea for the PWNMEAL name, I worked with him and Mikey Neumann (of the Chainsawsuit Podcast) to design the packs and write the copy.
Mikey came up with many of the flavor names in an email chain:
Kris designed the PWNMEAL guy on the front of the packet, who’s kind of angry cyborg version of the Quaker Oats man:
I wanted to evoke that early 1990s comic book thing where all characters are angrily shouting at the reader. I imagined an executive at the meeting giving notes that it’s “not cyber enough.” It feels like it’s a little too smooth for how gritty it wants to be! But I think that’s a concession that got made in the 11th hour. “Can he be menacing and family-friendly?”
We knew that in order to really “sell” the PWNMEAL brand, we had to create a major brand presence at PAX like any big sponsor of the show would do, except we had to do it without spending any money (because PWNMEAL is not actually a sponsor or even a real product).
The first part of this was PWNMEAL’s internet presence. Long before PAX, Jenn, Trin, and Claire from Cards Against Humanity set up the PWNMEAL Twitter account and started developing its incredibly obnoxious voice. Claire writes:
The voice of @pwnmeal is one of a 23 year-old male who just got hired as a social media associate and is extremely dedicated to the Brand. @pwnmeal only follows a few rules: all caps all the time, hashtag whatever possible, and everything is extreme.
The less a hashtag makes sense, the better it is.
The tweets started from a Google Doc that Trin put together and Trin, Jenn, Max, and I added to. The account started quietly started generating exciting content on February 19:
GET THE FIBER YOU NEED TO TAKE ON TEN OR MORE MEN AT THE SAME TIME. ATTACK A PACK OF PWNMEAL TODAY.
!!!INGEST THE FURY!!!
And pwnmeal was born.
Tweets were scheduled to go out about every three hours during PAX East (using Hootsuite, just like our imaginary social media man would do). In addition to that, Mikey, Kris, and Jeff Gerstmann had access and were tweeting throughout the convention.
The night before PAX, I got together in the lobby of the Westin hotel by the convention center with Kris, Mikey, Jeff Gerstmann, and Patrick Klepek, and we created the PWNMEAL.com website.
Kris buried his head in his phone and wrote the best part, the flavor descriptions:
This was my favorite part!! The whole thing is littered with gaming references just within the reach of the copywriter but rotated a few degrees into unnatural territory. It’s hard to make strawberries bad-ass, so we have to describe them as “gibbed.” I love the marketing constraint of having to describe how awesome a product is, while having to hit a bunch of notes from legal, and it can’t be more than 40 words. It leads to the densest, most forced copy imaginable.
Advertising (Old School)
The second part of our ridiculous advertising campaign was to assume the role of real sponsor of PAX, with ads on the giant video screens, banners throughout the convention center, and an extreme street team giving away oatmeal.
After months and months of begging, ReedPOP exhibitions (the company that runs PAX) agreed to give us a free 30-second video ad spot on the giant screens that ran once every twenty minutes. The only problem was that they gave us the ad spot only a month before PAX, so we really had to crunch to make the video.
We approached our friends at Digital Kitchen, a creative agency in Chicago, and, to work around our extreme time and budget constraints, they put together a proposal to shoot in their basement with local CrossFit trainers that an account executive was friends with.
For reference, we sent over a Calvin Klein cologne commercial with black and white models moving in extreme slow motion. Digital Kitchen rented a RED Cam and a crew, and recorded everything at 300 frames per second at 4K resolution to achieve the dramatic look we wanted.
An early version of the commercial cut between shots of the body builders and a more “nerdy” model (our photographer Jeremy, who took the photos above).
Although Jeremy’s shots were the funniest part of the commercial, we ultimately cut them, because we thought it gave away the joke too soon.
We also wanted signs placed throughout the convention center, but we knew we would never get permission for them, so we just had them printed the night before at the convention center Kinko’s and then set them out in the main entrance a few minutes before the doors opened to the public. I figured that only a handful of people at the convention would know that the signs weren’t actually supposed to be there, and that they would be too busy to take them down.
Surprisingly, the signs stayed up until the very end, and we let fans take them home.
For our Extreme PWNMEAL Street Team, we worked with a group of Enforcers (PAX’s amazing volunteer organizers) who were in charge of line entertainment to give away thousands of extra packs of PWNMEAL, which turned lines to get into panels and events into trading stations for the Cards Against Humanity PAX Packs.
Working on PWNMEAL was a ton of fun, and a great collaboration with Kris and Mikey. Kris said:
This was a dream to work on. I don’t think I’m better suited to any kind of project than poking holes in bad advertising. If this could be my full-time job, I would quit comics.
PWNMEAL was covered by Kotaku, GameSpot, AdWeek, and many other blogs and advertising news sites.
Some people met PWNMEAL with skepticism and anger, and perhaps even fear:
Other people got the joke pretty quickly, and started playing along with us:
Eventually people figured out the secret inside, and word spread:
So many people started tweeting to us that our account got banned on Twitter:
Some fans even made unboxing videos:
People started to find all the little inside jokes we hid in the packaging:
And also Mikey saw people going through the trash for oatmeal packets.