BURBANK — To be clear: The guys behind the "Nearly Finished Time Machine For Sale" advertised in dozens of flyers around Chicago know their contraption will never work.
"What's fun is you get the people who play along," said Daniel Sawtelle, 31. "You also get those people who say that 'the time machine isn't going to f------ work.' Those people are the ones who are taking it too seriously."
Sawtelle and three of his advertising classmates at Chicago Portfolio School, have been taping the flyers around town to drum up interest in an object taking up a lot of space in a garage in southwest suburban Burbank.
The device, really a bunch of scrap wires, doohickeys and machine parts thrown together to look suited for time travel, was built for 30 Seconds Over Chicago, an advertising competition to make the best ad for one of 36 Chicago-area breweries.
Though well-received by judges, the foursome's ad for Downers Grove-based Emmett's Brewing Company didn't win in the contest's final round.
"After we were done with it, we were like, 'What do we do with the time machine?'" said 29-year-old James Goodrich, who lives with his sister at the home where the machine is stored.
The lemon was posted on Craigslist in an ad that didn't attract enough attention, the students said.
So the group made a flyer touting a "nearly finished time machine for sale" that could only have been designed by an eccentric and fictional inventor, George McBrown, whose last name is a mashup of the names of Marty McFly's dad and Emmett "Doc" Brown from the "Back to the Future" movie trilogy.
"The flyer is what keeps our campaign together," Goodrich said. "It's not typical of advertising."
The flyers were initially posted Downtown, before they popped up in other parts of the city, most notably in Wicker Park, a neighborhood the students said the ad was made for.
In all, more than 100 ads have popped up around the city since June, prompting dozens of emails and at least 75 voicemails sent to the inventor.
Some of the voicemail messages can be heard by clicking on the image at the top of the story.
A Tumblr page archives some of the best responses, including many mentioning the term "flux capacitor."
The group, which has neither been paid or spent anything for the campaign, has had some fun building an entire world around McBrown, who is played by Sawtelle in the commercial and on the voicemail messages.
"What we like about this campaign is that we are building this around a character," Goodrich said.
The science behind the device is surprisingly simple. Goodrich looked up words on the "quantum mechanics" Wikipedia page and combined them with names of car parts.
"In theory, a flux capacitor is simply a method of creating a simple vortex, whereas if I had the stage 2 quantum harmonic oscillator, I could transverse time easier," the fictional McBrown messaged an interested buyer online.
"I just want the thing to work. I'm not worried about optimizing time travel at this point," the potential customer replied.
That person did not buy the machine.
The students have some plans in mind for their machine, including a pamphlet written by McBrown entitled: "53 Things You Should Know About the Time Machine You're Buying."
The students hope to eventually wheel the machine around to bars in the city, and are talking to Emmett's Brewing Company about a broader campaign.
They also know the exact offer they'll need to part with their hunk of junk.
"Jobs," said 28-year-old Bryant Thompson. "If there's a creative director out there that will hire us, we'll give them the nearly finished time machine."