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7 Movies That Had Mysterious Promotional Campaigns

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In a world where the Internet has most of the answers to a potential moviegoer's questions about any upcoming film—including how it ends—it's amazing that some filmmakers have managed to keep the details of their new movies a secret, right up until it's time to deliver the reels to the theaters. Some have blurred the line between fiction and reality. Some used the ubiquity of the Internet to their advantage. And sometimes, the viral campaigns were so great that they overshadowed the films entirely.

1. THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT (1999)

The "found footage" horror genre kicked into high gear with The Blair Witch Project, the story of three filmmakers who ventured into Maryland's Black Hills with video cameras and never returned. Nearly 80 million people read "police reports" on the incident and other information pertaining to the disappearances on www.blairwitch.com. That website—plus the use of unknown actors and a documentary featuring fake local news and newsreel footage titled Curse of the Blair Witch that aired on the Sci-Fi Channel prior to the film's release—led many of those 80 million people to believe that the movie was based in reality.

2. A.I. (2001)

The set of A.I., the film brought to us by Steven Spielberg and the late Stanley Kubrick, was notably off-limits to the press, and the stars of the movie had to sign confidentiality agreements. The hype of a Spielberg-Kubrick collaboration was probably enough to power the box office, but Warner Bros. created more than 40 websites to give background information on the alternate reality of the movie, where there is a robot uprising in the year 2142. It was all meant to be groundwork on a series of video games developed by Microsoft called The Beast, but ultimately turned out to be an alternate reality game (ARG) which lasted 12 weeks. The marketing campaign was massive, surpassing even The Blair Witch by utilizing phone lines, fax machines, email accounts, and live events.

3. CLOVERFIELD (2008)

While the first movie trailer for Cloverfield—which ran before Transformers (2007) screenings—showed footage from the actual movie, including handheld footage of New York City being destroyed, and credited J.J. Abrams as a producer, it left out the movie's title. Which only fueled speculation that it was a Voltron movie, or a big-screen spin-off of Lost. Websites were created for the fictional drink Slusho and a fictional drilling company Tagruato, two companies which ended up sharing responsibility in creating The Parasite, the name given to Cloverfield's monster. A MySpace page was even set up for the main character Rob, where "he" announced he was moving to Japan to work for Slusho.

4. DISTRICT 9 (2009)

District 9 is about a world in which sick aliens arrived in Johannesburg, South Africa in 1982 and were subsequently confined to the titular government camp. Billboards and signs reading "Humans Only" began promoting the movie more than a year before its release, without any movie title. A website "written" by the alien character Christopher Johnson told of the cruelties the military company Multinational United was inflicting on his people, and websites were created by Multinational United itself.

5. I'M STILL HERE (2010)

It wasn't until one week after I'm Still Here's release that director Casey Affleck admitted to The New York Times that the film was a mockumentary, and that Joaquin Phoenix only pretended to quit acting to become a rap star. Most memorable in aiding in the deception was Phoenix's painfully awkward 2009 Late Show interview with David Letterman.

Affleck claimed that he "never intended to trick anybody," while Phoenix appeared again on Late Show—this time as his true self—to apologize to Letterman.

6. INCEPTION (2010)

Up until seven months before its release, the plot to Christopher Nolan's Inception wasn't publicly known. The official website was simply a spinning top controllable by mouse, and after some weeks, the top started to wobble. When more time passed and the top toppled over, users were directed to a new website that revealed the first teaser poster. A viral game called Mind Crime was also created, which featured a movie trailer hidden inside the virtual world's movie theater.

7. SUPER 8 (2011)

The J.J. Abrams/Steven Spielberg collaboration (Abrams wrote and directed, Spielberg produced) resulted in expectedly mysterious promotions; theater employees even had to use a special code to open up the canisters containing the trailer. The final frames in that trailer snuck in the phrase "scariest thing I ever saw," and fans who went to ScariestThingIEverSaw.com saw a PDP-11 16-bit microcomputer display. Along with RocketPoppeteers.com, the two websites dived into the story of the son of the scientist who derails a train containing an alien that starts a big mess on Earth.

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John Lamparski/Getty Images for Hulu
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The Highs and Lows of the Dell Dude
John Lamparski/Getty Images for Hulu
John Lamparski/Getty Images for Hulu

Benjamin Curtis was just 19 years old when he went to the open audition that would change his life, but he still felt like a senior citizen. He was surrounded by child actors from the ages of 12 to 17, most of them accompanied by their mothers. The group was part of a casting call for Dell, the personal computing company well-known to business and educational customers but an unproven commodity for the home market.

Dell’s ad agency, Lowe Worldwide, hoped to change that reputation by introducing the character of Steven, a sharp, tech-savvy teen who would extol the virtues of Dell’s desktop and laptop offerings in a charmingly goofy manner. Even though he was two years outside the age range, Curtis’s agent believed he had a shot.

He read. And read again. And then read a third time. By December 2000, Curtis had gotten the part and was quickly becoming known as the “Dell Dude,” a pitchman who rivaled the Maytag Man in terms of commercial popularity. But by 2003, the character would disappear, victimized by a peculiar kind of corporate hypocrisy. While the Dell Dude’s stoner wisdom was good for laughs and increased sales, Curtis being arrested for actual marijuana possession was not.

In 1984, Michael Dell was a pre-med student at the University of Texas when he began tinkering with home computing hardware. A serial entrepreneur—he once made $18,000 as a teenager collecting data to find new subscribers for the Houston Post—Dell figured that custom machines and aggressive customer support would help fill a niche in the growing PC market.

He was right. Dell racked up $1 million in sales that year and spent the next decade and a half expanding into a billion-dollar enterprise. But a lot of Dell’s business consisted of commercial accounts like schools and government offices, leaving direct-to-consumer sales largely untapped. To help introduce Dell to those users, the company hired Lowe Worldwide to create a campaign that would appeal to people who felt intimidated by the personal computing phenomenon.

Lowe conceived of a precocious kid who could rattle off Dell’s specs and lend a human face to their line of hardware. But the “Dell Dude” wasn’t fully realized until Curtis walked in the door.

Originally from Chattanooga, Tennessee, Curtis grew up interested in performing magic and drifted toward theater in an attempt to strengthen his stage presence. He went on to earn an acting scholarship to New York University and had a roommate who knew a commercial talent agent. Having been introduced to her, he began going out on casting calls. One of them was for Dell.

Embodied by Curtis, the Steven character morphed into a Jeff Spicoli-esque surfer archetype, fast-talking and charming. In his first appearance, Steven makes a videotaped appeal to his father for an $849 Dell desktop “with a free DVD upgrade” because he knows his dad “likes free stuff.” In another, he encourages a friend’s family to gift his buddy with a Dell for $799, complete with an Intel Pentium III processor.

The commercials debuted in 2000, but it wasn’t until DDB, the Chicago ad agency that took over Dell’s account, introduced a catchphrase that Steven acquired his nickname. In his fourth commercial, he announced to his friend, “Dude you’re getting a Dell!”

From that point on, Dell’s splash into residential home computing was guaranteed. Sales rose 100 percent, with Dell’s market share growing by 16.5 percent. The awareness was almost exclusively the result of Curtis’s popularity, which grew to include numerous online fan pages and calls for personal appearances. Younger viewers wrote in and wondered if he was available for dates; older viewers considered him a non-threatening presence.

By 2002, Steven had starred in more than two dozen Dell spots. In some of the later ads, he took a back seat, appearing toward the end of the ads. The cameos prompted some concern among fans that Dell would be sidelining Curtis, but company representatives denied it. In early 2003, however, the Dell Dude found himself out of a job.

“Dude, you’re getting a cell” was the headline in media accounts of Curtis’s arrest in February 2003 on suspicion of attempting to purchase marijuana. Curtis was on Manhattan’s Lower East Side and sporting a kilt he recently acquired in Scotland when an undercover officer spotted him purchasing the drug from a dealer. After being held in custody overnight, Curtis was released and the case was adjourned. If he stayed out of trouble for a year, his record would be expunged.

The New York Times compared the relative innocuousness of his arrest to that of actor Robert Mitchum, who was arrested on a marijuana-related charge in 1948. Despite living in a more conservative era, Mitchum’s career was largely unaffected. The same didn’t hold true for Curtis, however; he was promptly dropped by Dell as their spokesperson. According to Curtis, the company had a strict no-drugs policy for employees, and one strike was all it took to force his dismissal.

Feeling ostracized from commercial work and typecast by the role, Curtis juggled gigs while working at a Mexican restaurant in New York and enduring daily recognition from customers. “They’ll get really drunk, and they’ll start yelling things at me,” he told Grub Street in 2007. “I either ignore them, or if it’s way out of hand, I go up and say, ‘I appreciate your support, but my name is Ben.’ That usually doesn’t work so I smile and ignore them.”

Dell never found a mascot as well-liked as Curtis. They hired singer Sheryl Crow to appear in spots beginning in 2005, but she didn't sway consumers as much as Steven had. In 2010, the company attempted to battle back from negative press over selling defective computers to customers between 2003 and 2005. Today, they typically occupy a list of the top three PC companies, trailing Lenovo and HP.

Curtis, meanwhile, made a segue into off-Broadway performing and now operates Soul Fit NYC, a holistic wellness center in New York that offers yoga, massage, personal training, and life coaching services. Although he’s expressed interest in coming back to Dell as a spokesperson, the company may not appreciate his latest indiscretion: In 2013, he admitted to owning a MacBook.

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Sarah Mahala Photography & Makeup Artistry, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0
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History
Why Lucky the Leprechaun Was Missing From Some Lucky Charms Boxes in 1975
Sarah Mahala Photography & Makeup Artistry, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0
Sarah Mahala Photography & Makeup Artistry, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0

It’s hard to picture a box of Lucky Charms without a smiling leprechaun plastered on the front of it. But cereal fans living in New England in the 1970s may remember a brief period when Lucky was nowhere to be seen. In his place was a forgetful wizard who was barely given a chance to make a blip in cereal mascot history.

As Atlas Obscura shared in a recent story, Waldo the Wizard became the face of Lucky Charms in select stores in 1975. At that point, Lucky had been representing the brand since it was introduced over a decade earlier, but General Mills was toying with going in a different direction with the marketing.

Lucky’s shtick hasn’t changed much since Lucky Charms was introduced in 1964: In commercials, the leprechaun is enjoying his treasured cereal when a group of hungry kids comes along. Instead of offering to share, Lucky plots to keep his Lucky Charms to himself and always fails. It’s not exactly controversial as far as kids' ads go, but in the mid-1970s, executives worried that the mascot's unfriendly attitude towards children would rub consumers the wrong way.

Enter Waldo: a wizard who wore a green cloak spangled with hearts, stars, clovers, and moons, and, like Lucky, adored Lucky Charms. But unlike Lucky, Waldo was always warm with kids and never hesitated to share his breakfast. Instead of running away, his gag was that he was always forgetting where he put his box of Lucky Charms, to which the kids responded by reminding him that he could just conjure some up with magic.

Shoppers responded positively to Waldo during his trial run in New England stores, but after less than a year, General Mills pulled the plug on the experiment. It turned out that having a slightly more innocuous character wasn’t worth abandoning the original mascot after spending so much time and money promoting him.

While he’s undergone a few redesigns in the past 50 years, Lucky is still prominently displayed on every box of Lucky Charms. His cereal-hoarding tendencies have also remained the same, though Lucky was written to be a bit friendlier following Waldo’s short-lived era.

[h/t Atlas Obscura]

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