Have we Meta? Six reality-bending marketing campaigns

Movie marketing image

One of the misconceptions about marketing and advertising is that they are conventional; business-led disciplines hampered by the bottom line and inherent conservatism.

However, that line of thinking is limited in itself. Marketing can be a vehicle for elaborate, original and startling ideas, and as this list shows, it still has the power to amuse, convince and surprise after all these decades.

Here is a list of inventive campaigns that – despite their individuality – have one thing in common: They embrace the products’ fictional worlds and blur the line between fact and fiction.

House of Cards: Frank Underwood’s website

This series is a jewel in the crown of Netflix: a big budget, prestige political thriller with a juicy lead performance from a high profile actor; Kevin Spacey, having a ball.

Despite the series’ dark content, its marketing campaign has often been fun and self-aware. A great example of this is its webpage, which is a campaign page for its fictional lead character, Frank Underwood. With all the hallmarks of a genuine political campaign site, a cheeky url (www.fu2016.com) and campaign videos.

District 9

A common hallmark of these marketing campaigns is the absence of direct selling: The key is to get people talking, not to shove the name of the film in people’s faces. District 9 was a sci fi film from 2009 based in South Africa and dealing with the discrimination faced by illegal aliens (who are also literal aliens).

Across the world, city billboards, benches and buses featured “Human Only” signs. The graphics were official looking and authentic feeling – except for the outline of six-foot prawn-like aliens.

Toy Story 3

In the space of just a few years, Pixar quickly established themselves as legendary storytellers with the likes of Toy Story, Finding Nemo and The Incredibles. Toy Story 3 focused much of its marketing on fans of the original film – who had since aged to their late teens and early 20s (much like the character Andy, the owner of the toys in the cartoon franchise).

So college campuses were filled with fake fliers advertising jobs in Pizza Planet (the fictitious restaurant chain from the films) and a new character, Lotso, was given a fake toy commercial – complete with cheesy music, ‘80s aesthetics and even grainy, VHS-style picture.

The Ring 2

The Ring is a horror franchise that started in Japan and was remade for American audiences. Its premise was simple: Anyone who watched a certain video received a phone call, and when they answered they’d be told they had “seven days” to live.

The sequel to the American version had a fiendish campaign: Fans were encouraged to send a friend a link to the trailer. As the trailer is playing, the friend’s phone would ring and when they picked up the phone, that’s when they’d hear the film’s creepy warning: “Seven days!”

The Simpsons Movie

When the cartoon behemoth was making the leap to the big screen, they needed something special to entice people away from their living rooms (where they, as Homer said, could watch the show for free!).

As a neat marketing trick, twelve separate convenience stores in America were converted to Kwick-E-Marts, containing real, edible products from the show’s universe such as Buzz Cola, “Squishies” and Krusty-O’s.

The stores’ interiors were remodeled to resemble Apu’s workplace, and cutouts of Bart and Milhouse could be seen drinking squishies on the roof.

Ex Machina

Could you fall in love with a robot if it looked like a beautiful woman? That’s the premise of the sci fi thriller from 2014, and it provided the inspiration for a unique marketing campaign.

Users of the dating app Tinder found the lead (robot) character’s profile, and could even interact with it/her, eventually leading users to information about the film.

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