Hollywood Is Getting Stealthier at Advertising With Mobile Messaging Apps

Disney/Pixar's Whisper campaign shows potential

Social apps like Whisper and Kik are tricky places for brands to advertise, but film studios are getting the hang of how to run under-the-radar campaigns.

Last week, Disney/Pixar orchestrated a five-day campaign on the mobile messaging app Whisper for the animated movie The Good Dinosaur, which tells the story of a dinosaur named Arlo and imagines what would happen if the creatures never became extinct. But unlike the spots that blanketed TV sets leading up to its Thanksgiving weekend premiere, the mobile campaign wasn't labeled as an ad. Instead, it looked like a normal piece of content that the anonymous app's 10 million users share with their friends.

Using Whisper's search-like ads, the film studio targeted based on keywords associated with the movie, like "friendship" and "adventures," similar to a Google AdWords effort. Typing one of the keywords into the app pulled up a branded post with a still from the movie and the film's hashtag. People could then upload the photo as a post.

A second part of the campaign prompted users to share a drawing of one of the characters from the film through a promoted section on the app's Popular channel. And another post asked people what they were thankful for on Thanksgiving Day. Again, the text for the post was overlaid on the film's branded background.

Disney/Pixar and Whisper declined to comment for this article.

Marketers increasingly see messaging apps as a way to reach millions of millennials and teens who use the apps as the main form of communication with their friends. Film studios' tie to pop culture makes them a natural fit for mobile messaging, said Miguel Caballero, creative director at Trailer Park, an agency that specializes in entertainment marketing.

"Generally, we're interrupting someone's day to get a message out, even for brands that are well-loved. But when you're in entertainment, there's a natural affinity as part of culture. It's something that you want to spend part of your day with," said Miguel Caballero, creative director at Trailer Park, an agency that specializes in entertainment marketing.

"Even very simple marketing with GIFs or messages are something that have a lot of social currency and can get passed along from one fan to another."

Disney/Pixar isn't the first film to work with Whisper to create branded content. Paramount Pictures worked with the company last year on the marketing around the film Men, Women and Children, which included branded photos and a callout to the app in a movie trailer.

Mobile messaging app Kik has also worked with a number of film studios, including a campaign that Trailer Park ran for Twentieth Century Fox's Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials in August. And Focus Features used Kik's Promoted Chats to tell a story based on the main character in Insidious: Chapter 3 back in March.

Still, messaging apps are full of risks for entertainment brands, namely the backlash that anonymous apps are notorious for. There's also a fear that millennials will flee messaging apps if they become chock full of ads.

"When you start allowing user-generated content, the bad words, crass language and awful things will end up being said," Caballero said. "If the client is aware of that going in—and they should be—then you know there's a chance that it could go sideways."

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