Meow Wolf Taps Into '90s Mall Culture to Hype Its New Exhibit

The trippy campaign, from Preacher, embraces 'the inherent weird' of the art collective

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A typical American mall scene—circa the 1990s—gets a trippy makeover where aliens mingle with shoppers and mannequins come to life, stores have sardonic names like “Earholes” and mall walkers form a cult-like community.

This surreal take on a well-known shrine of conspicuous consumption comes courtesy of art collective and entertainment company Meow Wolf as a way to promote its upcoming exhibit, “The Real Unreal,” opening this summer in a Texas-sized shopping plaza.

The 60-second hero video, under the tagline “Come Find Yourselfs At The Mall,” intends to draw existing fans and newbies to 29,000 feet of exhibition space in the Grapevine Mills mall, part of the sprawling Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. 

The short film is an anchor of a campaign that includes quirky, experiential billboards, pop-ups and other activations from Meow Wolf’s in-house team and independent ad agency Preacher.

The work is intended to serve as a “wonderfully weird and mind-bending invitation” to the exhibit, opening July 14, according to Marcus Brown, creative director at Preacher.

“Meow Wolf is a brain-altering, insanely fun and welcoming experience,” Brown said. “Our goal was to pay homage to that through the lens of nostalgic mall culture, inspired by Meow Wolf’s philosophies, artists and lovable characters.”

Few details have been released about the content of the art show itself—brand materials describe it as “transformative” and a way for guests to “explore new depths of their own individual imagination.” The space will have room for local vendors, retail therapy and emerging music acts via a live performance venue.

A pop-up activation promises consumers “A Whole Nü You.”

Meow Wolf already has an established track record in place-based entertainment—and 2.6 million cumulative visitors—at three permanent exhibits in Denver (“Convergence Station”), Las Vegas (“Omega Mart”) and hometown Santa Fe, N.M. (“House of Eternal Return”). Dallas is its largest market to date.

Preaching to the choir

The art collective, which has previously worked with Wieden+Kennedy, chose the Austin-based agency to help get “The Real Unreal” off the ground partly because “they embraced our inherent weird—they came to the table with several very insane, very Meow Wolf ideas during the pitch,” Kelly Schoeffel, the group’s chief marketing officer, told Adweek. “We engage in the work on a deep level, and their team was down to dance with ours.”

Schoeffel, an agency veteran who most recently worked at 72andSunny, joined Meow Wolf in December as its first CMO, noting that the artists “have a very high bar for creativity, which is a living thing.”

The brief to Preacher was to “make Texas notice us,” Schoeffel said. “Creatively, we aim for revolution over evolution, but it’s always important to root back to who we are as a brand.”

The collaborative nature of the relationship was a given, she said: “We approach ideas as wet clay—we like to throw in. We seek out ways to double down on innovation and artistry and lore.”

Mall walker characters in matching neon track suits will appear around the Dallas-Fort Worth area as part of the experiential marketing for “The Real Unreal.”

After brainstorming sessions that involved spirited debate about tracksuit designs and a capella singing, the partners arrived at the “Come Find Yourselfs at the Mall” concept. It served as an umbrella “that easily expanded into channels well beyond advertising,” Schoeffel said, as Meow Wolf tries to broaden its reach and become a major player in arts and entertainment.

Several versions of the video from director Zach Tavel—which feature Easter eggs like cameos by Plotzo the Rat and Meow Wolf founder-mascot Benji Geary—will air on TV, digital and social channels. A broader media buy will include mobile and out-of-home ads.

Mall walkers in the wild

Experiential marketing, which is closely intertwined with the Meow Wolf ethos, could potentially turn the campaign’s mall walkers into local celebrities. The exercisers, wearing the same matching neon track suits as seen in the video, have already started making appearances at high-traffic locations and events around the region.

For more on-the-ground hype, the partners have built a pop-up display at Grapevine Mills featuring a fake “intra-wellness” brand called Laërnu—hint: read it backward. The activation offers “A Whole Nü You” via sound baths with nonsense affirmations, digital and mirrored “reflection” stations, a claw machine and other curiosities. 

“We don’t have a playbook for our exhibitions, and we don’t have one for our campaigns,” Schoeffel said. “But with each, we get smarter about how to embrace the uniqueness of every market and its dynamics.”

Meow Wolf plans to continue its march in Texas, with another exhibit opening in 2024 in Houston. Schoeffel—who describes her role at the group as “part archeologist, part architect, part community-builder, part ticket-seller”—says the group’s “kaleidoscopic universe of art and story” will continue to look for new avenues of expression. 

“We are committed to building exhibitions, but we also ask…what else can we be?” Schoeffel said. “We have our first exploration in VR coming in September with our collaboration with Walkabout Golf, and we will be rolling out our app later this year.”

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