Selling a movie is not an easy task, and over the years it has not gotten any easier. Promotional campaigns have to be very creative and persistent in order to capture people’s attention amid the sea of advertising we are flooded with on a daily basis. Common tactics include giveaways, publicity stunts, viral marketing techniques, sponsorships, and product tie-ins. Many films try to push the boundaries of traditional promotional campaigns in an effort to get an edge on the competition. Below is a brief look at ten campaigns (in no particular order) which definitely pushed the envelope, but doing so did more harm than good for the films they were trying to promote.
Forgetting Sarah Marshall – Angry Posters
The promotional campaign for Universal’s Forgetting Sarah Marshall tried to focus on the plot point of the main character trying to get over his ex girlfriend named Sarah Marshall. To do this, the posters focused on statements such as “You Suck, Sarah Marshall” in big bold black letters (the films’ website was also www.Ihatesarahmarshall.com). That makes sense until you consider the fact that Sarah Marshall is a common name. Sarah Marshalls everywhere didn’t appreciate being the target of a hate-filled marketing campaign, and to make it worse, they found themselves a target of ridicule by other people who thought that it was funny.
2012 – The End of the World
2012 is a disaster movie about the end of days. To promote the film, the studio created a website that hyped up the fictional apocalypse with fake news reports, scientific studies, and videos. The site also featured a “sign up” for a lottery in which the winners would be picked to join others onboard an ark. Companion websites were also created to further the charade. Unfortunately, many people didn’t know that the website and the contest were actually a promotion for a movie. Instead, many people thought it was real, which led to a mass panic. NASA even reportedly received thousands of letters and inquiries from concerned people asking for confirmation of the website’s statements.
Singles – MTV Promotional Concert
This is a case of a bad execution ruining an otherwise good idea. Cameron Crowe’s 1992 film immersed itself in the scene of 90’s grunge, and so what better way to promote it than with a concert? Pearl Jam was featured in the film, and so it was a natural fit to have them perform at a concert following the premiere. That’s where everything started to go awry. To get more publicity, the studio worked out a deal with MTV to broadcast the concert live as a special. With the concert after the premiere, Eddie Vedder got drunk and then put on a “show”. His antics included starting off the set with a “F*%k MTV!”, stumbling around the stage, and eventually tearing down the set. On top of this, fights broke out in the audience, and the sound wasn’t working properly. While the live show would go down in history as one of the most infamous in MTV history, it was for all the wrong reasons, and no one remembered the film it was supposed to be promoting.
Mission: Impossible 3 – Musical Newspaper Boxes
A scene common to all of the Mission: Impossible movies is when agent Ethan Hunt receives his mission briefing in a covert fashion. In the original film, it takes place in the form of a cassette tape that self destructs. The marketing team behind the third film in the franchise thought that they could play off of this unique use of props by rigging several newspaper machines to play the Mission: Impossible theme song when they were opened. The problem was that the people who were buying the newspapers didn’t know what was happening. Many of them heard a noise and saw an electronic device inside the newspaper box and ran away. The police were contacted, and in one case the bomb squad blew up one of the newspaper boxes just to make sure it wasn’t a bomb.
X-Men Apocalypse – Strangling Billboard
To promote their new X-Men film, 20th Century Fox created a series of billboards featuring characters in various scenes from the film. One of these billboards happened to feature Apocalypse himself (played by Oscar Issacs) with his hand around the throat of Mystique (played by Jennifer Lawrence). Many people were outraged as the poster not only promoted violence, but blatantly used violence against women to sell a movie. The negative press against the advertisement eventually caused Fox to remove the billboard and provide an unconvincing excuse/apology as to why the connotation of the image had been “overlooked”.
Taken 3 – Linkedin Promotion
The Taken franchise revolves around Bryan Mills, an ex-covert operative with a “particular set of skills.” The marketing team behind the third installment thought that it would be cute to utilize Linkedin for part of their promotional campaign. Linkedin, if you are not aware, is a social networking website in which people create profiles listing their professional experiences and skills. The promotion created a profile for Bryan Mills highlighting his “particular set of skills”, and then invited people to enter their own profiles into a contest where they would be judged by their own skills. Ultimately this resulted in an AMA video where Liam Neeson himself picked the winner. Not sure if this better promoted Linkedin or the film itself, but creating a contest based on comparing people’s actual professional accomplishments seems a bit unfair and short-sighted.
Last Action Hero – Rocket and Balloon
In 1993, Arnold Schwarzenegger was at the height of his fame and his newest movie was expected to become the summer’s biggest hit. To promote such a blockbuster, the studio came up with several eye-catching ideas. First, they paid NASA half a million dollars to paint the film’s title on a rocket. The problem was that due to weather the rocket with the advertisement on it did not launch until after the film had been released in theaters, which eliminated any potential publicity the stunt had hoped to achieve. The second idea was to create a giant Arnold balloon in Times Square. But again, it was a case of bad timing and poor planning. The balloon featured Arnold holding dynamite, which people thought was in very poor taste given the fact that the first World Trade center bombing had occurred earlier that year.
Superman IV – Costumed Premiere
For the premiere of the fourth Superman movie, the production studio decided to try and raise money for charity. The idea was that not only would the movie get a lot of positive press, but famous people would attend. The premiere took place in London and both Prince Charles and Princess Diana attended, to great fanfare. To promote the event further, the studio asked the films’ stars to appear in costume. The problem? Christopher Reeves, Superman himself, did not attend. He stayed home because he knew the film was garbage.
Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film for Theaters – LED Sign Mishap
To promote the Aqua Teen Hunger Force film, Cartoon Network created a number of small LED signs around Boston which featured one of the film’s characters giving people the finger. That, actually, wasn’t the controversial part of this campaign. The problem was that the LED signs featured a lot of loose wires and the creators of the signs didn’t properly notify the authorities. What resulted was a city-wide bomb scare, with several of the film’s promoters being arrested. Turner Broadcasting eventually had to pay a fine to the government, and this eventually forced the president of Cartoon Network to quit.
Million Dollar Mystery – $1M Giveaway
Last, but certainly not least, we have a movie that was basically one giant promotion itself. Million Dollar Mystery is a 1987 screwball comedy film produced by legendary B-movie mogul Dino de Laurentiis. The plot revolves around a disgruntled government worker who steals $4 million and hides the money in 4 trash bags. He dies, but not before giving clues to the location of the first bag to a group of people at a diner. A mad scramble ensues to find all the money. At the end of the film, the final bag has not been located. This set up a real world contest where viewers of the film had to use clues found in the film to figure out where the last trash bag was hidden. The first person to guess the correct location would win the money.
The film’s purpose was not only as a set-up for a real life hunt for the final bag of money, but it was also designed from the get-go as a promotional tie-in for Glad-Lock brand trash bags. Where the film’s promotional efforts failed is the fact that the final bag of money contained $1 million. The film was a flop in theaters and its total gross was just less than that amount of money. Therefore, the promotion that the film was designed around ended up costing more money than the film generated with ticket sales. Ouch.