Some of the Best Movie Campaigns—From Blair Witch to Hunger Games

Technology and social media give Hollywood ads real star power

Illustrations: Chris Gash, below photo: Alfred Maskeroni

The Oscars are back this Sunday, for the 85th time, and once again the world gets set to witness the motion picture industry honor its best, brightest and most beautiful—while snubbing others. As we debate who should take home this year’s little gold men, fill out our Oscar ballots for the office pool and prepare those trays of hors d’oeuvres, we consider some of the best movie campaigns ever, and some of the greatest innovations in the selling of one of America’s most important and enduring consumer products. Here, New York-based creative director (and hard-core film buff) Michael English, who has worked on ad campaigns for global brands such as American Express, Hellmann’s and Dove, looks at some of the stars of the genre.

There’s no question Hollywood has stepped up its marketing mojo to levels that never could have been imagined only a few years ago. Advances in digital technology and social media that afford studios more bang for less buck (the motion picture industry laid out $3.15 billion on marketing last year, per Nielsen) also have made selling the movies a more creative enterprise, as marketers have become more adventurous about executing campaigns beyond the printed page or small screen.

By far the biggest—and possibly most complex—marketing behemoth to come along in recent years revolved around Warner Bros.’ The Dark Knight. The viral initiative began more than a year before the film’s 2008 release, using a brilliantly designed, faux political campaign site for character Harvey Dent. Warner Bros. and its agency OMD then created scavenger hunts and teaser trailers in multiple cities and published a fictitious newspaper, The Gotham Times, which was handed out on street corners. Perhaps the oddest element? Cellphones were literally baked into cakes, which led fans to search bakeries for telltale “ringing” confections leading fans to the big reveal: Heath Ledger as one of the baddest bad guys in the history of cinema, The Joker.

The size and scope of TDK’s global marketing campaign created an entire world for fans and moviegoers—iconic and memorable. It also helped deliver a staggering $1 billion in ticket sales worldwide. And that success massively upped the ante for other marketers. No longer would a mere teaser video be enough to inspire fans to duke it out on message boards.

Warner Bros. and TDK director Christopher Nolan apparently felt compelled to one-up themselves with the 2010 release of Inception, whose promotional effort was even more complicated and convoluted. Employing sinister taglines in teasers (“Protect your thoughts,” “Thought theft is real”), Inception’s crowning moment utilized billboards in New York featuring the illusion of water gushing from windows—a masterful use of trompe l’oeil that fit perfectly with the film’s dreamlike alternate reality.

Of course, one could point to seven decades of TDK’s caped hero in the public consciousness for helping make the film such a monster hit. The same could be said of 50 million copies of The Hunger Games trilogy having inspired enough buzz to get people into the multiplex last year. But Lionsgate also benefitted from some 50 national magazine covers plus the distribution of 80,000 posters featuring the movie’s fresh-faced stars.

A promotional blitz started a year before the release also used Facebook and Twitter to bombard teens with games and an invitation to register for a “district” (an essential plot element in the story), then compete with players in other districts. A YouTube channel helped fans keep tabs on the movie’s production even before the first scene had been shot. Meantime, Tumblr and Twitter feeds offered daily Hunger Games-related fashion advice.

“We have a more direct relationship with our customer than we ever did before,” Tim Palen, Lionsgate’s CMO, told Adweek last fall upon being named one of its Brand Genius winners, in recognition of his work on Hunger Games. Said Palen, gone are “the days when you would put out a trailer or print a poster and wait till opening weekend to see if you were actually connecting with your audience. There’s metrics for how you’re connecting, where you’re connecting and where you’re not connecting” far in advance of opening weekend.

But perhaps the real beauty of the campaign was its subtlety in selling a story about forced killings while never once mentioning the words “kill,” “death” or “murder.” (The majority of the audience was made up of young girls who already knew that the cute boy survives.) What resulted was a female-driven movie that had the fifth-biggest domestic opening ever. (One can count on a single hand, with fingers left over, the number of female-driven productions among the 100 top-grossing pictures.)

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