Who Actually Falls for Hollywood's Viral Marketing? Well, for Starters, Me

From Blair Witch to Dark Knight to Prometheus, movies' increasingly elaborate interactive ad campaigns rely on fan fervor—even if they don't guarantee box office success.

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A visitor (not the author!) dressed like the Joker character from The Dark Knight at Comic-Con in 2009. (Reuters)

A few weeks ago, I received an email from the year 2073. As a "valued shareholder" of Weyland Industries—the space exploration company at the center of Prometheus, Ridley Scott's new sci-fi thriller, which arrives in theaters tomorrow—I was invited to complete "an exhaustive battery of both physical and cognitive tests" that would determine if I was a good candidate for Project Prometheus. I immediately clicked over to the Project Prometheus web forum, where members were working on cracking what they believed was a secret embedded in the code of the website. As the real-life strangers banded together to search for the Internet equivalent of buried treasure, one commented, "I foresee another sleepless night..."

In the run-up to its release, Prometheus has been promoted like any other film: theatrical trailers, 15-second commercials, guest appearances by its stars on a variety of late-night shows. But Prometheus' most interesting advertisements—which have ranged from a TED Talk delivered by Guy Pearce's Peter Weyland in the year 2023 to a video explaining the technology behind David-8, the android played by Michael Fassbender—have gone straight to the Internet, to be devoured and deciphered by an enthusiastic (and sometimes obsessive) fanbase. And I should know. I'm one of them.

From the public "casting calls" of the 1930s to the promotional gimmicks made famous by schlockmeister William Castle, canny advertisers have always found real-world tricks to make their films stand out. But the rise of social media and online culture has opened up a new, cheap, and virtually unlimited method of promotion waiting to be exploited. Whether or not these techniques actually succeed in getting more people into theaters is an open question—but for participants, it's a question that's far beside the point.

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The modern Hollywood viral campaign can trace its roots back to the late '90s, when a group of savvy producers (including future transmedia specialists Mike Monello and Gregg Hale) saw a chance to boost the box office of an unconventional horror film called The Blair Witch Project. The film's weaknesses—tiny budget, unrecognizable actors, limited point of view—were turned into strengths with BlairWitch.com, a heavily-promoted tie-in website that treated the film as if it were a genuine documentary. Less than a month after the film's release, the Chicago Tribune reported that BlairWitch.com had received nearly 80 million hits. On a miniscule production budget of $60,000, The Blair Witch Project outgrossed expensive horror cousins like Sleepy Hollow and The Haunting by tens of millions—and forever changed Hollywood's marketing approach.

By today's standards, The Blair Witch Project's website, which features a few "found" audiotapes and a timeline of the Blair Witch story, is almost adorably quaint. And its effectiveness was short-lived: Once the events depicted in The Blair Witch Project were fact-checked and discounted, the "is it real?" promotional gambit couldn't easily be replicated (see the ridiculous copycat website for this year's The Devil Inside, which hasn't had a new post since January 12). But if fans could no longer be tricked into thinking a fictional film was real, studios could at least try to make the viral marketing compelling enough that fans would pretend it was real.

Less than two years after the smash success of The Blair Witch Project, Hollywood viral marketing leapt forward with a complex, amorphous game called "The Beast." Though "The Beast" was ostensibly a promotional tool for Steven Speilberg's A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, its reach was far broader and stranger than BlairWitch.com. By researching "Jeanine Salla"—a name credited in A.I.'s trailers and posters as a "sentient machine therapist"—curious fans suddenly found themselves embroiled in a murder mystery set in the year 2142, with a scope that eventually included thousands of websites, a series of real-time faxes and phone calls, and "anti-robot" rallies in three major U.S. cities.

"The Beast" was the first truly successful "alternate reality game," or ARG—a type of promotion that attempts to blur the lines between the real world and a fictional one. Though "puppetmasters" control each game's major events, by their very design, ARGs are unpredictable and uncontrollable. A group at Microsoft that created and engineered "The Beast" and later went on to found 42 Entertainment says that more than 3 million people participated in the game, from dozens of countries across the world, before its solution was reached in the weeks leading up to A.I. Artificial Intelligence's release.

But if "The Beast" offered a new example for complex, expansive viral marketing, it also showed viral marketing's limitations. For all the effort that went into the game, relatively few showed up to see A.I. Artificial Intelligence, which grossed just more than three-quarters of its $100 million budget domestically. You could leave a trail of breadcrumbs leading to a movie theater—but you couldn't make anyone watch.

Despite its questionable efficacy, "The Beast" was followed by a series of even more elaborate ARGs that tied in with everything from the Xbox game Halo 2 to the TV show Lost to the Nine Inch Nails album Year Zero. My personal introduction to the world of ARGs came as one of the 10 million participants in The Dark Knight's "Why So Serious?" campaign, which grew so complex and elaborate that players created an entire Wiki to keep track of it.

Playing "Why So Serious?" felt like being a part of The Dark Knight's Gotham City, and it's hard to discuss what it was like to participate without sounding kind of crazy. For months, I obsessively read along as players across the country followed online clues to bakeries, picking up cakes with working cell phones baked inside—cell phones that soon began to receive calls from the Joker. In the face of a growing, nationwide Joker army, District Attorney Harvey Dent pushed back, and 33 U.S. cities saw citizens participate in "I believe in Harvey Dent" campaign rallies. In the week before The Dark Knight's release, the "Why So Serious?" ARG ended with hundreds of players gathering in downtown New York City under the Bat Signal, which was projected onto a building. When the symbol was suddenly "defaced" by the Joker, it signified the film's beginning—and the game's end.

But recent years have also offered no shortage of cautionary examples of how viral marketing can fizzle. Because ARGs have mystery built into their very structure, their solutions can often be disappointing (I recently ended up investing a few hours into an ARG that turned out to be a promotion for Wrigley's 5 Gum). And at worst, they can cause serious real-world problems: The most notorious viral marketing campaign spawned a citywide bomb scare in Boston, when the police department believed mysterious LED placards intended to promote Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film for Theaters to be improvised explosive devices. (Turner Broadcasting, the parent company behind the Comedy Central series, eventually paid $1 million to both the Boston Police Department and the Department of Homeland Security in a settlement).

The marketing machine behind Prometheus has been less robust than the best ARGs and more successful than Hollywood's worst attempts, but like all the viral campaigns before it, it raises one question: Does all the buzz signify a bigger box office? "Why So Serious?" worked by preaching to the choir; it's hard to imagine anyone who wasn't already excited about seeing The Dark Knight participating in a real-world Batman game, just as it's hard to imagine anyone who's not already planning to see Prometheus subjecting themselves to a battery of online tests. Viral marketing may raise fan hype from "excited" to "very excited," but it has a much harder time convincing anyone who's not already sold on a film to participate in the game—let alone buy a ticket to the movie.

But financial and practical concerns aside, it's easy to appreciate the viral marketing campaign for what it really is: a love letter to the fans. And for a Hollywood dealing with increasingly fickle audiences, keeping fans happy may be motivation enough.