Studios' viral marketing campaigns are vexing

Wed Apr 30, 2008 2:55am EDT
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By Andrew Wallenstein

LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - Viral marketing has gone positively bubonic. While this unconventional approach to building buzz online is nothing new, it has achieved full-blown plague status in the walk-up to the summer movie season.

"Forgetting Sarah Marshall," "The Dark Knight," and "Hancock" are just some of the movies employing viral marketing -- and the sheer volume is only part of why this strategy has becoming problematic.

For the uninitiated, viral marketing involves hatching multiple interconnected Web sites that plug a movie by extending its story lines online. That in turn gets blogs and social networks linking in -- hence its viral nature.

Gone are the days when marketing a movie online involved simply buying a URL like and uploading a trailer. Warner Bros. has launched more than 30 Web sites during the past year in support of the latest in the "Batman" franchise, a trail of virtual bread crumbs intended to sate fans until the July 18 release.

Although the bulk of these campaigns play out on the Internet, they also frequently move offline, often in the form of wacky public events intended to amass die-hard enthusiasts. One "Knight" site provides clues pointing to screenings that were scheduled for Monday in 12 different cities.

But fans expecting a handy online guide that lists dates and locations for the screening will be disappointed. Instead, you'll arrive at a spooky Web site featuring portraits of presidents whose images had been defaced by the telltale makeup of the Joker. Clicking on each portrait links to a set of coordinates that require accessing Google Maps to decipher.

Nothing is ever simple in viral marketing. Take the sheer depth of the "Knight" campaign, in which dozens of seemingly marginal elements of the film have Web sites of their own, including a fictional bank, a travel agency -- even a deli, for crying out loud. Some are simple, single-page trifles, while others lead into games that would require wartime code-breaking skills to maneuver.

That's viral marketing for you -- compelling, creative and intricate but above all just plain exhausting. Since when should marketing feel like doing homework?   Continued...

<p>"Forgetting Sarah Marshall" writer and cast member Jason Segel poses at the premiere of the film in Los Angeles April 10, 2008. REUTERS/Chris Pizzello</p>