Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Ignoring Sarah Marshall: When Viral Isn't Viral

We've mentioned on this blog how many successful viral campaigns have an element of risk to them. One the most common risks an advertiser will take with a viral campaign is to try to hide the product or brand--at least for a while. Done appropriately (meaning you are providing an engaging experience to consumers and not merely tricking them), this can be a way of overcoming aversion to advertising. The trick is in how and when you handle the "reveal;" Too soon or too late, and a viral campaign can fall flat or worse.

Many bloggers feel the campaign for upcoming film "Forgetting Sarah Marshall" is failing due to an immediate "reveal." Billboards and bus stop ads have been popping up with faux magic marker graffiti that reads "I'm so over you Sarah Marshall" and "You do look fat in those jeans Sarah Marshall." The ads are intended to spark curiosity that will encourage consumers to visit a fake blog (or "flog"), which will pique their interest in the flick.

The problem is that MPAA rules require all movie ads contain the rating symbol. The campaign tries to make it appear some guy who has been dumped is getting revenge on his ex, but the easily recognizable movie rating symbol immediately destroys the concept. The poster immediately reveals the product, thus this becomes a viral campaign without the viral.

Stripped of the intrigue, consumers are focusing on the words and many don't like what the see. Some bloggers simply have a problem with the nasty tone or the way the ads find humor in human insecurity. (Others sense a Judd Apatow backlash may be in the making; there's a suspicion his many raunchy films are beginning to feel the same. Apatow, who is the producer of "Forgetting Sarah Marshall," was behind hits like "Superbad," "Knocked Up," and "The 40 Year Old Virgin", but recent releases "Drillbit Taylor" and "Walk Hard" didn't catch on with audiences.)

The posters aren't the only thing undermining this viral marketing campaign. The flog at IHateSarahMarshall.com continues the mistake of revealing the product too soon, and this time Universal can't blame the MPAA. I suspect the studio thought that Kristen Bell would help open the film, so a good campaign would make use of her well-known face. Unfortunately, that traditional movie marketing thinking is the antithesis of a viral campaign. People arriving at the blog see the star, know the blog is fake, and aren't encouraged to read a word. They immediately believe they know everything the marketer has to say (or everything the consumer cares to know), and they leave.

How might this have worked? Start with posters that contain the rants but not the MPAA rating or URL. People--even those who suspected a marketing objective--would have wondered what Sarah Marshall did to deserve this treatment. They would've searched online and, due to a well-executed Search Engine campaign, would've found a link to the flog.

Upon arriving at the flog, consumers would've found content that extends the movie, not markets it. Peter's "flog" would've been as well written as any scene from a Judd Apatow movie--it would've been funny, engaging, heartbreaking, sexy, edgy, and real. Photos on the blog wouldn't look like actor face shots and movie stills but would've had the quality of photos taken by you and me. Kristen's famous face could have been obscured by badly photoshopped devil or dog faces, as if done by a jilted lover with minimal design skills.

Perhaps a second flog might've popped up. Sarah Marshall could've launched her own blog, bragging about her new relationship and the great sex. She might've told Peter to get a life. Both blogs would have been written to drop enticing hints about the movie, encouraging web surfers to become moviegoers.

Done right, by the time the "reveal" happened (or even if visitors knew from the start), the blog experience would've been so funny and engaging that people would not have felt tricked but entertained. In short, as with any viral campaign that works, consumers would feel they've had an experience rather than been marketed to.

Do you think this campaign works? You can see some of the OOH ads here and here. You can also check out the "red band" trailer here (which is appropriate only for "restricted audiences"). We'll see if the viral campaign works or if people are tiring of Judd Apatow once the movie opens in two weeks.

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