The 10 Goofiest “Viral” Marketing Campaigns in Movie History


Taken 3 (or, as its ads would have it, TAK3N — which I believe is pronounced “Take-three-en”?) is out Friday, and I can’t tell you anything about it, because (as is so often the case with the little masterpieces we’re given in January) it’s not being screened for critics. But I can tell you that it’s being marketed with a totally awesome LinkedIn campaign! Yes, the year’s least necessary sequel and your most annoying email sender have paired up to create a little bit of online movie marketing magic, reminding us that when it comes to creating film ad campaigns with the express purpose of “going viral,” the occasional Blair Witch or Cloverfield is often counterbalanced by numerous laughable embarrassments.

TAK3N and LinkedIn (2014)

Last month, 20th Century Fox partnered with an online network about as exciting as the notion of watching Neeson slum it in a Taken movie one more time: LinkedIn, the professional connection site that’s always sending you goddamn requests from people you barely know. But they figured out a way to make LinkedIn cool, you guys, “giving one lucky fan the chance to have their ‘particular set of skills’ endorsed by the ex-covert operative himself on their LinkedIn profile.” You see, the catchphrase for Neeson’s Bryan Mills is that he has a “particular set of skills,” so you see how that… um… would be… you know. Later that month, after this little contest didn’t quite set the world on fire, inboxes were filled with an even stupider bit of news: “20th Century Fox has worked with LinkedIn to create a NEW profile page for Bryan Mills! This is only the second time that LinkedIn has permitted a fictional character to have a profile page for promotional purposes; the first was Santa Claus.” Presumably, those two have very different “particular sets of skills.” At any rate, hats off to Fox for figuring out a way to tap into that most desirable of moviegoing demos: depressed, middle-aged office dwellers.

Wanted’s Viral Video (2008)

Speaking of office dwellers, many a 2008 daytime web-surfer was thrilled to discover a security camera video showing someone doing what they’d very much like to do: freak out on the job, destroy an entire office, and generally go bananas. Only after the “Office Worker Goes Absolutely Insane” video had gone viral did the truth come out: it was a prank from director Timur Bekmambetov to promote his film Wanted, in which, um, James McAvoy kinda does that? The connection was tenuous at best — and since the video in no way actually advertised or even mentioned the movie itself, it didn’t end up doing Wanted a helluva lot of good.

I Love You, Beth Cooper’s Viral Video (2009)

The following year, Fox decided to get some sweet viral video buzz floating around their high school comedy I Love You, Beth Cooper. That film’s inciting incident finds a valedictorian using his graduation speech to confess his love for the most popular girl in school, so in June of 2009, a month before the film’s debut, 18-year-old Kenya Mejia concluded her valedictory speech at a Los Angeles high school by announcing, “I cannot let this opportunity just pass by. I love you, Jake Minor!” Majia pocketed $1800 for doing some movie marketing in her speech, which was shot in a purposefully “amateur” style and dropped on YouTube, with the approval of her actual boyfriend (not Jake Minor), but to the horror of her parents and school district. It didn’t do much good; according to the Wall Street Journal, the clip nabbed less than 2,000 view on YouTube and the movie tanked.

The Da Vinci Code Quest on Google (2006)

The readers of Dan Brown’s bestseller — and the viewers of Ron Howard’s 2006 film adaptation — love puzzles, right? I mean, that’s what those books are all about (well, that and crazy flat prose). So to promote the film, Sony paired up with Google to create a series of challenges, puzzles, and online games where fans could win fabulous prizes. Trouble was, they overestimated the interest and patience of their audience; the Google Quest proved so intricate and ambitious — and bug-prone — that it failed to provide either satisfaction for players or promotion for the movie (which didn’t really need it anyway).

Running Scared’s Online Game (2006)

This decidedly R-rated Paul Walker action thriller ended up with a hot potato of a marketing tool: an online GTA-style video game called “Welcome to Grimley” which not only recreated the copious drugs, violence, and sketchy characters of the movies, but even included an option allowing the player, as Walker’s character, to virtually perform oral sex. The game caught the attention of the National Institute on Media and the Family; under pressure from the watchdog group, New Line first eliminated the sexual element of the game, and then pulled it from the movie’s website altogether. While operational, the game was nabbing something like 60,000 unique visitor per day — but there’s a difference between free online plays of a blood-and-sex-drenched video game and theatrical ticket buyers, as was evidenced by the movie’s eventual, limp $6.8 million box office take.

Snakes on a Plane’s Robocalls (2006)

Snakes on a Plane was dopey enough to begin with: a C-movie that became an Internet obsession thanks to its silly title and the presence of paycheck-cashing star Samuel L. Jackson. After the movie became a meme, its creators even took pains to shoot new scenes that adjusted to the ironic tone of its boosters (and went so far as to add in a key line of dialogue, above). As its release date approached, people started getting strange phone calls: a voice that sounded an awful lot like Samuel L. Jackson was ringing people up and telling them to go see Snakes on a Plane. Those calls, which resembled the “robocalls” of a political candidate, came via a page on the movie’s website, where visitors could enter names, phone numbers, and personalized information; those were then customized and prerecorded by Jackson. But somehow, “Samuel L. Jackson knows my boyfriend’s name!” didn’t translate to bang-up opening weekend ticket sales, which managed a meager $13 million.

TRON: Legacy’s Flynn Lives (2010)

Disney took nearly 30 years to make a sequel to their video game-infused sci-fi movie Tron, so they needed a gimmick to hook people in. Thus, they launched the Flynn Lives website, detailing scavenger hunts in 25 cities around the world; the scavenger hunts led to other participants, hidden cell phones, secret locations, additional clues, a second website, and ultimately… a movie theater, where they saw a trailer for TRON: Legacy. Um, thanks?

The Anti-Sarah Marshall Campaign (2008)

The Judd Apatow-produced comedy Forgetting Sarah Marshall began with the premise of a poor schlub scorned by his super-successful girlfriend. So shortly before its release, Universal began placing billboards and posters in several cities, sporting a handmade, black-marker-on-white-background look and several angry messages, including “You Suck Sarah Marshall” and “You Do Look Fat in Those Jeans, Sarah Marshall.” You know who didn’t think they were all that funny or clever? Women named Sarah Marshall. One of them, a California high school senior, found her parents getting calls from friends, asking if she’d been targeted by some kind of hate group. Marshall told the Los Angeles Times , “They’re everywhere, and they’re so annoying… I wish they specified that it’s a movie.” And that’s the trick with these “viral” campaigns: these posters, intended to create a first wave of awareness, don’t actually say that they’re film advertisements. Said posters were soon replaced with more conventional ads, while a group of Marshalls got together and bought some billboards with a responding message: “You suck, Judd Apatow.”

Delgo’s Digital Dailies (2008)

Nine years in the making, at a cost of $40 million, Delgo became one of the most notorious flops in recent movie history; it opened on over 2,000 screens yet only taking in half a million dollars, averaging to about two viewers per showing. But its creative team had a seemingly great idea during production: post images and sequences of the film as a work in progress, dubbed “digital dailies,” on the movie’s website. The response was enthusiastic, with something like 500,000 views per month; trouble was, most of those views were coming from inside Hollywood, with animation headhunters noting the film’s best animators and luring them away from the already-delayed production. Whoops.

Lions for Lamb’s YouTube contest (2007)

The only thing worse than a dumb marketing campaign is one that wants you to do their work for it. Such was the case with Robert Redford’s flop Iraq movie, a dry dirge in which characters spend 90 or so minutes talking endlessly about war. Appropriately, distributor United Artists devised a contest where video-makers would submit 90-second videos of themselves talking about matters important to them, for a $25,000 prize to the charity of their choice. Good intentions, sure, but ineffective marketing; the film bottomed out at an embarrassing $15 million. But hey, at least a charity made some coin, so somebody won.