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Viral Marketing — ur doin it rite

January 22, 2009

Okay, so I lied about not posting about Watchmen no more.

But this viral piece from Watchmen comes on the tail of a disastrously failed viral marketing campaign in Australia, of which I was aware because I follow a number of Aussies on Twitter.

Viral marketing is hard to do right. It’s hard to predict what people will latch on to and really start talking about and pass on to their friends. I get a lot of people asking for advice on how to make their video a viral hit, and there are factors you can look at. High-quality content is likely to get passed around. Content attached to some kind of celebrity will probably get passed around. Funny or uplifting usually has a better chance than somber. But beyond that, I dunno. The RvD films are a total fluke — it’s not like we planned for them to be smash hits (although we hoped, on the second one), and I’m not sure you can plan that kind of thing — although the Ask a Ninja guys might disagree with me.

It seems you can’t go wrong with cute animals acting strange. You’ve seen the sneezing panda? Of course you have. Everyone has. Fucking bear has 30 million views on YouTube. I don’t even know how many views the frigging dramatic prairie dog/chipmunk/gopher has, because it’s been uploaded about 4000 separate times — but most of the search results have half a million hits or more.

But trying to actually make an ad badass enough to catch on? It happens. Usually when you’re dealing with Superbowl spots, you can be guaranteed people are going to seek it out, and if you do other spots throughout the year like that, there’s a good chance people will talk about it and they’ll look it up online. But that’s more word-of-mouth from traditional advertising than viral marketing, which seeks to make the audience do the work. They spread it around, they show it, they talk about it and it becomes part of the zeitgeist, at least for a little while.

Viral marketing for movies had its genesis with The Blair Witch Project. They set up a website — when the vast interconnected community they call “Web 2.0” was only just starting to appear on the scene — which basically asserted that the film was a real documentary about real events. The campaign was so successful that not only did everybody know about this micro-budget indie flick, with almost no real marketing to speak of, but for years afterward I would meet people who still thought it was real.

Quite frankly, I think viral marketing for a film can be a beautiful thing. In the old days, movies were more like live theatre. You sat in your seat and the curtains went up and an overture played. Like in live theatre, the overture was meant to both accommodate some stragglers who were finding their seats, but also to set the mood. If it was a musical it would give you hints of the musical themes you were going to hear. But most of all it provided a buffer zone between your real life, and ushered you into the fantasy life you were about to see on the screen.

We don’t have that anymore, except in more specialty theatres. Most theatres are little boxes with chintzy decor. You’re bombarded with advertisements for various products, other movies, and reprimands about proper etiquette which people seem to ignore anyway. These days movies don’t even have opening credits for the most part, which means you just have to hit the ground running when the film starts playing.

Viral marketing like the Watchmen piece below help, I think, to fill that gap. It creates a whole “experience” of the film’s reality, allowing you an early taste of accepting and understanding and engaging the world of the film.

When done right, the seams are invisible. For one thing, note that this video never once mentions the film Watchmen. It’s not really an advertisement so much as supplemental material, about what is ultimately one of the central concerns of the story (mild spoilers): Dr. Manhattan changed the world, and no one can in that world can imagine it without him.

It sets the stage for the time period (an alternate 1980s) by being a very faithfully-produced replica of a 70s-era news broadcast, complete with “bad VHS” type degrading, which is heaviest early on.

It also frees up the filmmakers to not really have to deal with setting this up too much in the movie. The world will be different, and what we have here is three minutes of exposition which are unlikely to be crucial to the story, but create, as I said, a fuller, more immersive world.

The last “nice touch” is that the video is posted by the user “thenewfrontiersman,” which is the name of a sort of widely-read, conspiracy-theory type newspaper in the Watchmen world. The kind of paper that sometimes gets a scoop but is usually just adding editorial paranoia to otherwise innocuous events (i.e. the kind of paper an unfortunate number of people, in our America as well as theirs, tend to believe). If they do more videos, we may get to become acquainted with the personality of The New Frontiersmen, as well as other characters in the film.

This kind of marketing becomes fun, almost interactive. A kind of spontaneous roleplaying has already showed up in the comments, with people pretending that this world really exists, that this news broadcast is a genuine part of our history.

“I gotta say, I miss all those costumed heroes,” one says. “Sure they were reckless, but they made things a lot more interesting.”

If a video gets posted about Adrian Veidt, we’ll probably see comments praising his products and his humanitarian efforts, while others malign him as a sell-out and a heartless mega-corporation, probably even using anti-Wal-Mart rhetoric to give it a realistic flair. They are engaging with the movie and they haven’t even seen it. They are becoming part of the tapestry of the film.

Zack Snyder and the producers have already shown a strong grasp of getting people to feel like they are a part of this film — they held a short film competition to produce advertisements for Veidt products, the best of which would be seen as television advertisements within the film itself. When you get people to feel a sense of ownership over the movie, to feel that they helped make it what it is, you are more successful creatively (because they’re more engaged), and more successful commercially (because they’re more likely to come).

I’m really very excited about this movie because more than anything, it just seems like they really get it. This clip is no exception.

  1. TheGamut permalink

    Never seen sneezing panda. (Will come back for that later.) Seen that dramatic rodent before, but never on YouTube.

    A little humility is a good thing, but face facts. RvD was really good. Whether you guys were expecting more or can’t believe in success, RvD was really good. There were others that had better effects, had more humor, and whatnot (though I’ve yet to see better choreography), but they separated the audience from the event. RvD captured the whole “I wanna be a Jedi” fantasy while showing the utmost respect to the excitement that people (now) associate with Jedi (– the style essentially introduced by Darth Maul’s fight in Ep1). It made people feel like they could be Jedi; real Jedi (and not Star Wars Kid). They connected. People loved that.

    So there you go. You guys, too, had the interactivity with the audience that makes viral marketing (more often than not) successful.

  2. TheGamut permalink

    Okay. I saw the Sneezing Panda. Yes. I had to resist the urge to send it to a million people (who have likely already seen).

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