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If you were one of the many who helped make '2012' into the weekend's box-office champ, you may have gone to see the film despite, rather than because of, its viral marketing campaign, whose seemingly real end-of-the-world alarmism may have sent more people scurrying to hide in their basements than out to the theaters.

That's often the problem with gimmicky viral marketing stunts for movies, according to an article in The Guardian: for people who aren't already clued in to the movie's plot, these campaigns tend to be more deceptive and scary than enticing. If you were one of the many who helped make '2012' into the weekend's box-office champ, you may have gone to see the film despite, rather than because of, its viral marketing campaign, whose seemingly real end-of-the-world alarmism may have sent more people scurrying to hide in their basements than out to the theaters.

That's often the problem with gimmicky viral marketing stunts for movies, according to an article in The Guardian: for people who aren't already clued in to the movie's plot, these campaigns tend to be more deceptive and scary than enticing.

The case of '2012' points out the perils of such stunts: they make sense if you're familiar with the content of the movie or TV show they're secretly promoting, but for the vast majority who are unfamiliar, they may cause panic.

For the apocalyptic disaster movie (starring John Cusack, pictured), Columbia Pictures launched a Web site for the (fictional) Institute for Human Continuity, whose warnings of imminent planetary doom prompted tens of thousands of frightened queries to NASA, which had to set up its own Web page dedicated to debunking the studio's fictional fear-mongering.

instituteforhumancontinuity.org


The Guardian cites similar panics sparked by the indie horror film 'A Beautiful Day' and the big-screen 'Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film for Theaters.' For the latter, marketers installed LED displays of the Cartoon Network show's pesky Mooninites in public places in ten major cities, but police in Boston, apparently unfamiliar with the late-night Adult Swim series, saw the device as a potential bomb threat and all but shut down the city.

Why do studios try these risky, backfire-prone viral marketing schemes? Blame it on 1999's 'The Blair Witch Project,' whose cleverly deceptive Web campaign convinced a lot of unwitting moviegoers that the low-budget Sundance horror sleeper was really a documentary of a true urban legend.

Of course, no one else has made such a campaign work in the decade since. Last month's hit 'Paranormal Activity' has earned many comparisons to 'Blair Witch,' thanks to its low-budget indie origins, shaky-cam faux-documentary style horror, and a successful Web-based campaign that turned the film into a nine-figure blockbuster.

Unlike 'Blair Witch,' however, there was no attempt to fool potential moviegoers into thinking that 'Paranormal' was a true story. (Though some were fooled anyway.) The marketers trusted viewers to appreciate the film for the frights and jolts it offered and then relied on them spreading positive word of mouth via social media (particularly Twitter). Paramount was able to open the film slowly, in cities where the online campaign proved demand was highest, while letting the buzz spread before opening it nationwide.



For marketers, the problem with these types of online campaigns is that they work only once, and then they lose the element of surprise, as potential moviegoers are on their guard. You can get around viewers' BS detectors by disguising your fake website's connection to a much-hyped movie or TV show, (as the '2012' "Institute for Human Continuity" stunt did), but then you're just sowing confusion, not brand awareness. "There are always going to be problems with unbranded campaigns," MovieViral.com editor Dan Koelsch told the Guardian, "because people may not get the connection to the film, and people fear the unknown."

Still, as frightening and off-putting as the '2012' viral campaign may have been, it seems to have had little negative impact at the box office. Which means studios will continue to market movies this way, even if it occasionally blows up in their faces. After all, one pitfall the '2012' campaign avoided: it didn't pack a bigger wallop than the movie. (The Guardian cites as an example the viral campaign for 'The Love Guru,' which turned out to be much cleverer and funnier than Mike Myers' actual movie.)

The final lesson: viral marketing will ultimately be of no use if it's for a movie that doesn't deliver.

Has a viral marketing campaign ever convinced you to see a movie?
Yes, it got me interested.4 (44.4%)
No, it made me feel duped.5 (55.6%)