01.18.08 – Viral Marketing Strategies in Hollywood Cinema

Stephanie Janes

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


The term ‘viral’ has only recently become part of our everyday media vocabulary. No longer confined to diseases or computer bugs, anything from ad campaigns, to dancing hamsters and videos of cats playing the keyboard have been described as having ‘gone viral’. However, when we attempt to define ‘viral marketing’, it becomes clear that the meaning of this now familiar phrase is somewhat blurry, tending to overlap with related concepts such as ‘buzz marketing’ or ‘word-of-mouth’.
What can be agreed is that the term was not significantly used before the 1990s, and so is at least chronologically associated with the growth of the internet, as a public and commercial communications network. It is also generally agreed that the key to viral marketing is getting consumers to pass on the message to others. The emphasis is on understanding consumer-consumer relationships and knowing your audience well enough to predict their referral behaviour. A working definition of ‘viral marketing’ could therefore be ‘a marketing strategy which encourages consumers to pass on a message to others, usually, but not necessarily, using the internet to do so’.
Almost every marketing campaign for Hollywood films now involves a YouTube video, or website, that could be described as ‘viral’. However, the kinds of campaigns discussed in this chapter are far more complex. They encourage not only referral, but immersion in and interaction with the world of the film before, during and after viewing. This allows the viewer to shape, or at least appear to shape, their cinematographic experience.
Viral marketing marks a shift away from what Justin Wyatt (1994) calls ‘high concept’ filmmaking and marketing. High concept films are characterised by easily summarised plots, notable stars, and pre-sold property. The trailer alone can tell an audience everything about a film before they see it. By contrast, viral marketing withholds this information and dares the audience to follow trails of online clues to get at it. It encourages word-of-mouth rather than attempting to bypass it altogether. Campaigns for films such as The Blair Witch Project (1999), Cloverfield (2008), A.I. (2001) and The Dark Knight (2008), therefore demonstrate a significant change in the relationship between producer and consumer. This move to encourage agency (or at least the appearance of agency) in the cinematographic experience is often discouraged in other areas of the industry, e.g. distribution.
This chapter uses the Cloverfield (2008) online campaign as a case study to question the motives behind such elaborate online campaigns. It will suggest that the deliberate positioning of the viewer as investigator within the marketing campaign is accompanied by an extension of the filmic world, as opposed to simply an extension of narrative online. This can produce a seemingly immersive experience that can be, but is not always, reflected in the aesthetics of the film itself, and that can transform a piece of marketing material into an entertainment experience in its own right.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationBesides The Screen
Subtitle of host publicationMoving Images through Distribution, Promotion and Curation
EditorsVirginia Crisp, Gabriel Menotti Gonring
Place of PublicationLondon
PublisherPalgrave Macmillan
ISBN (Print) 9781137471017
Publication statusPublished - Jan 2015

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