By now I'm sure you've all heard of that new J.J. Abrams movie. You know, the one with the monsters. It comes out on January 18. And"¦it's a J.J. Abrams movie. Truth is, that's just about all we know. Even without any details, the movie, known colloquially as "Cloverfield," is still building all kinds of buzz because of its clever viral marketing. The teaser played before Transformers and revealed nothing, save the release date, Abrams' name and the fact that the Statue of Liberty would be decapitated. Following the trailer, crazed fans found the site 1-18-08.com, which contained a series of pictures that my untrained eyes dismissed as blurry and pointless. Others more wise in the ways of geekdom, however, found hidden clues in the pictures that will supposedly lead them to other sites with more information about the movie (Abrams promises a full trailer, clips and, eventually, a name further on the quest).
Amazingly, this marketing technique is one that's become quite popular for movie studios, although it hasn't been used to such an extent before. A form of guerrilla advertising, viral marketing is just a way to build buzz through the Internet. Hotmail is credited with starting the whole thing, but The Blair Witch Project brought it to Hollywood. The low-budget production didn't have money to spend on elaborate trailers and giveaways, so it built buzz by spreading a rumor on Internet chatrooms that three college students had disappeared while making a video about a witch (that's the plot of the movie, if you didn't know). Even before the film was announced, people were already talking about the legend of the Blair Witch. The simple marketing technique paid off in the end, as the movie scored $248 million at the box office.
Since then, Hollywood's viral campaigns have become more intense, requiring a real commitment to follow clues. Take the campaign for Steven Spielberg's futuristic fairy tale, A.I. After Googling "Jeanine Salla," viewers could visit an entire alternate Internet set in the movie's universe with everything from history pages to university websites. Some sites contained hidden messages in the HTML source code, others sent you threatening emails. Fans started sharing their discoveries on message boards and the game got millions excited for the movie (sadly, critics didn't share the excitement and A.I. opened to mixed reviews).
This interactive form of marketing has caught on for movie campaigns. The upcoming Batman flick, The Dark Knight, is in the midst of a fun one right now (you can follow it's early progress here). They've even started taking the leap off the screen; fans at this year's Comic-Con could have nabbed Slusho shirts with clues about Cloverfield. Even better were the dollar bills defaced by the Joker as pat of the Dark Knight campaign, leading fans to this creepy site (coulrophobes beware). Abrams has been especially adept at using them, having built online games for both Alias and Lost to keep fans interested while the shows were on hiatus. It's questionable how successful these types of campaigns really are, though. They appeal to a select group of people, those with enough free time (or a really boring job) to scour websites. You need to have a pretty extreme passion for the subject already, which is why Batman gets this treatment while, say, the Devil Wears Prada didn't. Some viral games meant to appeal to a wide audience have tanked. Take Push, Nevada, a Ben Affleck-produced show that was like Twin Peaks on steroids. Phone numbers, websites and other clues were planted in the show itself, so viewers were expected to follow them on their own. Unlike most other viral campaigns, Push did have a goal- a $1 million payoff for the winner. It just never caught on, though, and the show was cancelled after only seven episodes (the reward was still given out).
The best Hollywood viral campaign, though, has to belong to the Ring 2. Before the film was announced, the studio set up message boards with fake posts about people freaking out about having seen the film's deadly video. But the real treat was before the DVD release; fans could track down a site and enter a friend's email address and phone number. They were then sent a link to the video, which, when viewed, triggered a phone call letting them know they would die in seven days. I'm not sure how successful that would be; I know that if I had been hit with that, I wouldn't have bought the DVD because I'd be too busy curling into the fetal position under the covers.