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It's official: Times Square screen hack a hoax

"Hack" did play in Times Square, but thanks to studio cash, not an iPhone. Welcome to the world of covert advertising.

The video, uploaded to YouTube Monday, amassed more than 1.2 million views in four days. Video screenshot by Eric Mack/CNET

Just as I--and many of you--suspected, the viral video claiming to demonstrate how to hack into the huge video monitors in New York's Times Square was a fake.

The video shows two people: one filming and holding an iPhone with a "video transmitter" plugged into the headphone jack, and the other with a "video repeater" that appears to hijack any screen it comes near, forcing it to display the video feed from the phone. Toward the end of the video, the repeater is attached to a helium balloon, and floated up in front of the Times Square monitor, which also acquiesces to the "hack."

As it turns out, there's more of a backstory to the video than its DIY aesthetic would seem to indicate. The faux hack was actually part of a subtle viral marketing campaign for the movie "Limitless." The only nod to the film comes in the moments before the Times Square screen is taken over--the movie trailer is playing on the screen before it's replaced with the iPhone feed.

While many people called the hoax, we didn't get it totally right. I and most others assumed the screen manipulation was the result of video post-production. In fact, Michael Krivicka of Thinkmodo, the marketing agency behind the video, says the apparent video hijack really did play on the Times Square screen.

"We basically rented the screens on Times Square," Krivicka told InformationWeek. "We had our own footage play on there, which had sync points that were looping every 60 seconds. So we basically synced up the footage on our iPhone and made it look, with rehearsed timing, like it's being hacked into. It was really simple."

A follow-up "reveal" video (above) just posted to YouTube begins with a few extra seconds of footage from before the beginning of the original fakery. The hacker holds up a pill he calls "NZT" that he credits as the source of his hacking ability. The plot of "Limitless" centers around NZT, and the reveal video concludes with a short trailer for the film.

So, welcome to the world of covert advertising. Here's a tip--next time you see a video involving a kitten and a smartphone on the Internet, keep in mind that it's probably part of CNET's own viral marketing campaign. But I'm getting ahead of myself. Stay tuned for our own reveal video, when we learn what the "T" in CNET really stands for...