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When Viral Marketing Goes Wrong

When Viral Marketing Goes Wrong (photo)

"Innovative" movie promotional ideas have caused baseball fan anger and mistaken terrorist panic.

“2012″ may have destroyed the box office this weekend, but it also did plenty of damage to NASA, who received thousands of letters and phone calls from concerned citizens that the world was going to end in just over two years — so much so that NASA set up a site to specifically debunk their fears. Roland Emmerich’s latest disaster flick would’ve inevitably inspired some to panic regardless, but these calls got an assist from Sony’s viral marketing campaign for the film, which included a web site devoted to The Institute for Human Continuity that, among other things, offers visitors an opportunity to register for a lottery to increase their chance of survival when the apocalypse strikes. The move inspired some, like Stuart McGurk at the Guardian to look at the ways viral marketing “can go bad.” I’d like to add to the pile four more risky movie marketing maneuvers that bombed, sometimes literally:

11162009_spiderman2.jpg“Spider-Man II” Bases

Although it didn’t strike fear in the hearts of the general public, baseball fans cried foul when Sony signed a deal with Major League Baseball to place the Spider-Man II logo on bases and in on-deck circles in 15 stadiums in June of 2004. At first, the MLB declined the offer of putting Spidey-style netting behind home plate as the netting to catch foul balls because they thought it would distract the players, but the league felt okay with the bases having a Spidey diamond in the center. As MLB president Bob DuPuy said to ESPN, “This is not a step toward wallpapering the ballpark,” but that’s exactly what fans believed it was. They complained profusely until the MLB nixed the plans at the last second. (It didn’t help Sony’s cause that “Spider-Man II”‘s director Sam Raimi is a baseball purist who previously directed “For Love of The Game.”) Geoffrey Ammer, then-marketing head of Columbia, told ESPN, “We saw some of the polls on the Internet that said that 71 and 81 percent of the fans didn’t approve of it.” But hey, who could blame them for covering all their bases?

11162009_captivity.jpg“Captivity” Billboards

What better way to push a movie starring the voluptuous Elisha Cuthbert than to see her imprisoned, wrapped in gauze with a tube of blood being pumped from her nose? It was at the height of torture porn’s popularity in 2007, but most Angelenos and New Yorkers were turned off by the billboards for “Captivity,” which outlined the four steps of the horror film’s plot — abduction, confinement, torture and termination — in prominent locations. After Dark Films CEO Courtney Solomon claimed the billboards were a result of a printing error, telling the L.A. Times “I don’t know where the confusion happened and who’s responsible,” before adding later in the same interview that the film was “about something that happens to 850,000 people in this country a year.” Joss Whedon and future “United States of Tara” writer Jill Soloway weren’t convinced that After Dark was raising awareness for female abduction and campaigned to the MPAA to have the film’s rating removed, which would effectively limit the studio’s ability to advertise at all. The billboards were taken down at significant cost to After Dark and the Roland Joffe horror flick never found an audience.

11162009_mi3.jpg“Mission Impossible III” News Racks

In 2006, Paramount decided to install digital music equipment into Los Angeles Times news racks that would play the “Mission: Impossible” theme song when opened, but when wires from that equipment weren’t completely contained, those going about their morning routine thought they might be in for an explosion like the one that sent Tom Cruise blasting through that train tunnel in the first “Mission: Impossible.” The Los Angeles arson squad destroyed one such news rack after hearing a complaint and soon after, the 4,500 news racks in L.A. county, which were equipped with the theme music that starts with signature sizzle of a match, were dismantled. Said Mark Kurtich, the then-senior vice president of operations for the L.A. Times, “I think Paramount is pretty happy about [the publicity they received].” It didn’t help the film, however, which was the lowest grossing in the franchise.

11162009_mooninite.jpg“Aqua Teen Hunger Force” Boston Bomb Scare

Again, terrorist threats aren’t exactly the best way into the hearts and minds of potential audiences, but that’s exactly what people in Boston were led to believe when they saw electronic light boards featuring “Aqua Teen Hunger Force” characters called Mooninites, crescent-shaped cartoon creations waving a middle finger to anyone who passed by. Like those who installed the “Mission: Impossible” news racks, the duo responsible for the installation of the lightboards didn’t do a very good job of hiding the wires and as a result, Peter Berdovsky and Sean Stevens were arrested by the Boston police for causing a public panic. The lightboards had the dual purpose of promoting the “Aqua Teen Hunger Force” show as well as the upcoming feature film. Cartoon Network executive vice president Jim Samples was forced to quit after TBS, the network’s corporate parent, paid $2 million to settle the bomb scare claims in Massachusetts. As for Berdovsky and Stevens, they pleaded not guilty to charges of disorderly conduct and placing a hoax device and at a press conference after the hearing, would only answer questions about their hair. Which was fair, since they put the dread in Boston’s security locks.

[Additional photos: "Spider-Man II" base, courtesy of ESPN; "Captivity billboard, courtesy of /Film; L.A. County Sheriff's Department inspecting a Santa Clarita MI3 newspaper rack, courtesy of The Signal; Cambridge Mooninite, courtesy of Wikipedia, all used without permission]

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