How HBO Built a Real-Life Activation as Immersive as the Universe Within Westworld

Kilter Films collaborates with the network to promote Season 2

Actor James Marsden, who plays Teddy on Westworld, took photos with fans at the SXSW experience. Courtesy of HBO
Headshot of Kristina Monllos

Last week, ahead of the Season 2 premiere of Westworld, creators Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan participated in an Ask Me Anything chat on Reddit, where they set forth a curious proposition: If fans agreed, they would release a video spoiling all of the twists and turns of the upcoming season. Hours later, a video was released but, as some expected, it was an elaborate prank, a Rickroll tailor-made for spoiler-obsessed Reddit fans that featured Evan Rachel Wood, who plays Dolores on the HBO show, singing Rick Astley’s “Never Gonna Give You Up.”

“As someone who spends time on Reddit regularly, I saw this as a way to have fun with a community that I love,” Nolan explained.

Reaction to the video was mixed—Reddit fans seemed to love it; critics questioned it—but it quickly garnered nearly half a million views on YouTube. The video is just one example of the effort that has gone into a massive, multipronged marketing campaign for the show’s second season that HBO and Kilter Films, the production company behind Westworld, kicked off last July at San Diego Comic-Con. It continued with HBO’s first 30-second Super Bowl ad in 20 years and then in March with an immersive activation recreating the show’s fictional town of Sweetwater at South by Southwest.

Noreen O’Toole, co-producer, Kilter Films, said marketing for the show provides “a unique creative platform.”

“We’re telling stories that don’t necessarily exist episodically, but they are absolutely a part of the mythology, and they are part of the 360 [-degree] Westworld,” she said.

The point, of course, isn’t just to build out the sprawling world of the show, but to get more people to tune in. “Over 13 million viewers per episode, it was the most-watched first season of an HBO original series ever, so a great starting point but certainly a challenge given what will be an almost 18-month gap between seasons,” said Zach Enterlin, evp of program marketing at HBO. “So strategically, we felt we needed to eventize the return of the series.”

The strategy seems to be working. The Super Bowl ad scored over 21 million views, according to Tubular Labs, while the SXSW experience garnered more than 100 million social impressions, according to HBO.

“With any film or series, you’re always leaving stuff on the cutting-room floor,” Nolan said. “So the marketing is a perfect opportunity to keep detailing, embellishing and building your universe. When it’s done right, it feels like a win-win for the creators and the audience.”

In keeping with the show’s ethos, there’s more to the marketing than it seems. Much of it features hidden messages, providing more opportunities for engagement and leading savvy fans to find new content. The Super Bowl spot, for instance, included a hidden code that led fans to the website, where they could see another ad, this one from the perspective of the corporation that runs Westworld. The discovery of the hidden ad quickly scored the No. 1 spot on Reddit’s homepage internationally that day.

The companies took a similar approach to launching the Season 2 artwork. Cast members tweeted links instructing Twitter users to ask a bot on to “find the key.” That led fans to the poster for Season 2 that had an additional hidden code to find yet another video, “Find the Door.” When the poster was released as an outdoor ad, it included another code that if found would lead fans to, the Delos Corp.’s intranet.

“The challenge with any of these sorts of things when you’re talking about transmedia, when you’re talking about a VR experience, a website, an installation, is that you have to generate all that content,” Nolan said. “The script for the installation at SXSW is almost as long as the script for the second season.”

For the show’s premiere on April 22, HBO and Kilter are partnering with Snapchat for Westworld-themed lenses—a world lens and a selfie lens—that includes “a bit of new tech from Snapchat,” according to Sabrina Caluori, svp of digital media and marketing at HBO. The selfie lens will let users include their name, a first for Snapchat, Caluori said. The companies are also working with Quartz’s Bot Studio to create a Facebook chatbot.

“Because Westworld is exploring the intersection of technology and humanity in the material of the core story world, that creates a very interesting canvas for us to extend into the digital world,” said Caluori.

HBO declined to specify how much the massive marketing push costs, but Enterlin said “it was worth every penny,” and that “the show is big and cinematic and lends itself to big ideas, and hopefully consumers are feeling that bigness out in the marketplace.” Meanwhile, a Season 3 renewal for the show has not yet been announced.

“We’ve joked that the eventual growth of the show would be Season 5 isn’t a series—it’s a theme park,” said Nolan. “By that point, we would just make the damn park.”

This story first appeared in the April 16, 2018, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

@KristinaMonllos Kristina Monllos is a senior editor for Adweek.