On January 31st 2007 the city of Boston, Massachusetts was brought to a virtual standstill when a homemade battery-powered LED device was spotted attached to a freeway flyover. Immediately concerned that the item was an improvised explosive a patrolman put in a call. The emergency services were mobilised, the bomb squad called in and highways and bridges were closed. TV helicopters were soon buzzing overhead and the news of the panic was swiftly spread across the net.
But this was no terrorist attack, rather a piece of guerrilla marketing for the movie version of Cartoon Network’s Aqua Teen Hunger Force - think SpongeBob SquarePants aimed even more directly at stoners - that had gone most spectacularly wrong.
Or had it? No doubt the idea was wrong-headed and clearly distressing to many, but it was clearly effective. Everyone from Fox News to The Colbert Report subsequently featured coverage of the event and though the studio behind the film had to pay some millions of dollars in damages, the placement of a small few plasticky gizmos around Boston had garnered national exposure. Was this, then, simply an ill-advised/deranged stunt, or an extreme example of a movie marketing campaign ‘going viral’?
“The problem with the term ‘viral marketing’,” says Susan Bonds, CEO of 42 Entertainment, the agency behind the viral campaigns for The Dark Knight, Tron: Legacy and The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, “is that there is no clear consensus on what it means. For some it means viral videos, for others it means guerrilla outdoor activities, and for others it means everything combined.”
And while more and more of them are being produced to announce new movies, what is agreed on is that viral campaigns are born out in the wild woods, not concocted in the lab, “Campaigns can only become viral if an audience responds to them after they are created and launched,” says Steve Wax, Partner at creative consultancy Ladies & Gentleman. “What increases the chances they will go ‘viral’ is not marketing's version of Viagra – Facebook - but instead a careful concentration on the fans of a brand, where they like to hang out, and what they're are interested in and entertained by.”
Movies and viral marketing would appear to be a perfect match. Viral campaigns are free to take advantage of many of the aspects unique to movie production – from borrowing actors for splinter projects that expand on characters’ backstories and flesh out the fictional world to making use of footage that didn't end up in the finished picture. So what makes for a successful viral movie marketing campaign? Why do some movies forgo them? Do they ever run the risk of over-exposing a film? Are they merely preaching to the converted and, ultimately, do they even work at all?
A campaign that has certainly caught public attention and made the leap from movie websites to the broadsheets is that for Ridley Scott’s Prometheus, the belated prequel to his 1979 sci-fi horror Alien. Whilst undeniably benefitting from the boon of existing audience knowledge of Alien movie mythology, there is no denying the quality and consistency of the viral clips and trailers that have teased us up to the release of the film, nor the innovation with which they have been presented over various media.
Whether it be Guy Pearce as grandstanding Steve Jobs-meets-Kerry Packer techno-mogul Peter Weyland speaking at the 2023 TED Conference or the chilling ads hawking the Weyland Corporation’s new emotionally aware android David 8, played with sycophantic naivety by Michael Fassbender, the campaign has made us want to know more, to tell our friends and – the holy grail of viral marketing! - to get involved.
Both of these campaign films were devised by Scott and co-writer Damon Lindelof, and directed by Luke Scott. The filmmakers worked with Substance, the London-based company charged with the online publicity, marketing and social media strategy for Prometheus. “We design and build digital projects such as video, websites, apps and games. This gives us the capability to offer a holistic digital strategy for releasing a film,” says Sam Corry, Senior Digital Publicist at Substance. “If we take a look at the most recent trailer launch for Prometheus, which aired on Channel 4 during an episode of Homeland, viewers were invited to interact with this exclusive reveal by sharing their thoughts via Twitter using the hashtag #areyouseeingthis. During the second ad break these responses were aired live on screen for all Homeland viewers to see. This is a great example of how offline advertising can create a much bigger impact and pull in a wider audience by incorporating a digital element.”
It’s tempting to already view this elegant, restrained campaign as a copper-bottomed success, yet Billy Donnelly of aintitcoolnews.com isn’t wholly certain as to the true potency of the Prometheus virals. “I don't think it's caught the public imagination so much as it's caught the geek imagination. I'm still not convinced the general public knows exactly what Prometheus is yet, nor do they have any ideas about its connection to Alien. Remember, if it isn’t referencing something made in the last 10 years or so, this younger generation seems to be in the dark about it!”
“We don't know if the Prometheus campaign has been successful or not yet,” adds Matt Bochenski, editor of film magazine Little White Lies. “It's been noisy, sure, but has your mum or dad heard of it? I'm excited for Prometheus but I actually think the viral campaign has been annoying as fuck - it's a self-anointed Movie Event, and I kind of resent that.”
We’ll have to wait and see as to Prometheus’s eventual success, but one campaign over which there can be no debate was also the first to make digital media central to its marketing strategy – that for 1999’s Blair Witch Project.
Dan Myrick, one of the film’s co-writer-directors says that the filmmakers had little clue how persuasive the ‘found footage’ viral videos that preceded the film would be. “I don't think we would have made such a splash at Sundance had it not been for so much pre-awareness generated by our web campaign. We felt we had a compelling premise and an interesting way of conveying it, but we had no real way of knowing how big it would become. Beyond a certain point, the film took on a life of its own and we were just along for the ride.”
In 2008, The Dark Knight was promulgated by a breakout campaign that greatly expanded the mythos of the Batman movies with a vast alternate reality game (ARG) that incorporated real world scavenger hunts. Susan Bonds of 42 Entertainment outlines the campaign’s appeal. “Participants got to be a citizen of Gotham City and all the complexity that entailed - being part of the Joker’s growing army or working in support of Batman. We created over 35 weeks of interactive fiction that played out the story and world between Batman Begins and The Dark Knight. Almost 11 million people in over 75 countries actively engaged for several hours on average. Key film assets were released through the viral campaign on the strength of community collaboration and the passion of fans. It’s that give and take between the studio/filmmakers and the audience that fuels the growth of participation exponentially.”
Perhaps even more impressive was the viral campaign for 2009 South African sci-fi sleeper hit District 9, which couldn’t call upon the Caped Crusader’s brand recognition, but instead utilised a wide range of viral sites, real-world guerrilla marketing tactics and ARGs to propel the film’s profile from backwater curiosity into blockbuster territory. Somewhat ironically, however, the filmmakers have denied approval for the creative agency behind the campaign permission to speak to CR relating to any and all ‘marketing activity’. The same kind of static surrounded inquiries into Watchmen, the campaign for which forms a textbook case study of an excellent viral shot being let down by a mediocre film. Viral publicity is not, it seems, a two-way street…
Nor is not one long roll call of triumphs. As well as Aqua Teen Bomb Terror there was the ill-conceived apocalyptic scaremongery of the campaign for Roland Emmerich’s 2009 end-of-the-world rollercoaster 2012, which caused so much confusion and alarm amongst the public that NASA set up an Armageddon FAQ page on its website to assuage people’s fears. The campaign for Samuel Jackson’s irony free winkfest Snakes on a Plane (2006), meanwhile, created such a hurricane of early viral activity that interest in the film had blown itself out long before its eventual released.
But even disregarding the clunkers, there is some considered scepticism toward the worth and efficacy of viral movie marketing. Some feel it’s a case of singing to the choir. “Some movies are so highly anticipated that it doesn't even matter,” reckons Dan Koelsch, Executive Editor of movieviral.com. “I'm surprised The Dark Knight even had a viral campaign. They obviously spent a good amount of money on something for people who were already going to see the film.”
Marc Berry Reid, Regional Director of digital communications agency Way To Blue, concurs. “The big question for me is how can viral campaigns break out of just appealing to the core audience. They are typically adopted by the 'fan boy' audience who, it could be argued, are going to see the film anyway. Avengers Assemble is a good example of a movie that, even though it screamed for one, had no elaborate viral campaign. Did the lack of one impact the movie? The box office so far doesn't seem to suggest so.”
Robert Marich, contributor to Variety and author of the book Marketing to Moviegoers has harder evidence. “It's absolutely shown by interviewing American moviegoers that the most impactful marketing is the in-theater screening of trailers and TV commercials. Online comes after. That's unlikely to change for the foreseeable future.”
So is it ultimately simply a case of throwing it all against the wall and seeing what sticks? The immaculate, award winning campaign for Tron: Legacy failed to put bums on seats, while James Cameron’s Avatar had no viral campaign to speak of.
But with the success of Prometheus already looking assured and the viral campaign for box-office sure-thing The Dark Knight Rises steadily ramping up, you can be sure that a good viral campaign will be deemed central to successful movie marketing for some time to come.
Hollywood loves a winner.