Blog Post

Disaster Film 2012‘s Viral Marketing Campaign Is Also a Disaster

[show=twentytwelve size=large]Warning: The below post contains spoilers for the upcoming Roland Emmerich-directed film “2012,” starring John Cusack, Thandie Newton and Danny Glover. Trust me, you’re not missing much.

Back in the winter of 2008, I had more than a few good reasons to be excited for 2012, due out on Nov. 13: I’ve got a soft spot for both John Cusack and the apocalypse, the teaser trailer gave me chills, and Emmerich films are a guilty pleasure. Also, I liked what was then the very beginning of a viral campaign to promote the film, focusing around the Institute for Human Continuity, a fictional organization created to choose via lottery who survives the Mayan-predicted end times — it reminded me of the revolutionary ARG known as The Beast, which created a fascinating interactive prequel to Steven Spielberg’s A.I. in 2001.

Over the past six months, the viral marketing folk at Sony (s sne) have expanded the online world of the film, adding more content to the IHC and launching two additional sites (This Is the End and Farewell Atlantis, the latter promoting a novel written by John Cusack’s nice-guy-just-trying-to-save-his-kids character). They’ve also been making heavy use of YouTube to release videos.

The IHC YouTube channel is posting video responses to questions asked on webcams by “vloggers” — the vloggers are plants, but some effort was put into creating fake YouTube accounts for them. And one of them looks more than a little familiar — that’s right, kids, it’s Woody from Cheers! As Charlie Frost on YouTube, Woody Harrelson has been reprising his character from the film (alleged to be a conspiracy radio host) to rant about the impending end of the world, and it must be said that the actor has a real knack for vlogging. Beneath all the hair, Harrelson’s eyes hold the camera’s gaze all too easily, and his drawling delivery adds charm to the same tired conspiracy theories behind what might cause the world’s destruction.

Here’s the sad truth, though. While it’s always nice to see a major studio make use of existing social media tools in a fun and creative way (especially a major studio whose CEO hates the Internet), there’s a major disconnect between the marketing campaign and the actual film being promoted. See, a number of film web sites, including CC2k and Latino Review (Google-cached version only) got their hands on the script last year. And while changes to the script might easily have been made since these reviews were written, the fact remains that the IHC and Charlie Frost sites compromise rather than complement the dramatic thrust of the film.

After all, if the end of the world isn’t supposed to be common knowledge in the year 2012, why does the IHC web site state emphatically: “In 2012 a series of cataclysmic forces will wreak havoc on our planet”? Compare that to the premise as laid out in the teaser trailer: “How would the governments of our world prepare six billion people for the end of the world? They wouldn’t.” Not to mention this line from Latino Review’s script review: “Finally we reach the titular year 2012. By now, signs of impending doom have been steadily accumulating…Nevertheless, people are going about their daily lives as usual, oblivious to the doom in store.” Perhaps the people in the film don’t have the Internet anymore? (Now THAT sounds like a disaster film.)

You can’t claim that those working on the marketing campaign weren’t aware of the actual film’s premise — the involvement of Harrelson alone proves that someone involved with the making of the viral marketing actually read the script at some point. Not to mention that the Charlie Frost video Watch my animation matches with THE ACTUAL EXPLANATION FOR THE APOCALYPSE in the script.

Perhaps my expectations were too high for a movie made by the guy who thought outrunning the weather would be compelling action for a summertime audience. But in theory, Sony had the resources to ensure that the offline and online components of 2012 would work together seamlessly, and it’s frustrating to watch that opportunity squandered in this way. I would love to see the film effectively being advertised by Charlie Frost and the IHC. But that’s not the film we’re going to get.

9 Responses to “Disaster Film 2012‘s Viral Marketing Campaign Is Also a Disaster”

  1. I don’t know… there’s plenty of “crazy” people and 2012 doomsday theories in the real world right now, but I don’t see regular people acting on them. I’m sure there are even real life societies like the IHC; I haven’t heard of them. I don’t think its too unrealistic to think that even if people in the movie world hear about the destruction of the world in 2012, they won’t believe it. The destruction of the world is such a huge event it’s unthinkable, and people who do think about it regularly are going to be labeled as “weird” or worse.

  2. Last night I was going to bed and had the tv on.
    As I laid there this commercial for I.H.C. came on.
    I didn’t know of this viral site but did know of the 2012 movie and the real “doomsday talk” out there on 2012.

    So I laid there in bed watching this commercial thinking, “What the…?!?” When it was ending I saw the copyright info in the corner attributed to Sony Pictures and started laughing.

    Wow! Love the viral marketing that movies do today!!!

    Still, in reading the post above, it makes me laugh even harder thinking how “shocked” everyone looks when told on those huge jumbo screens in the trailer how the world was ending.

    I guess in the film nobody is aware of the internet or even the Discovery Channel specials on Doomsday Prophecies! ;D

  3. Hey, Justin, in answer to your question: the reason I emphasize YouTube is that we’re an online video site primarily and thus that’s where I focused my coverage.

    And if you’ll read carefully you’ll note that none of my complaints have anything to do with the actual execution of the social media aspects of the campaign, which are (I agree) really well done. Instead, I’m disappointed that this campaign seems to be out of sync with the actual film being released — which is a shame.

  4. Interesting take on the marketing of the film, but how come you only reference Youtube? Sony has made some great strides in marketing this film all over the social web including facebook, myspace and twitter and through those sources has built not only a great online following for Charlie Frost, but also built some great momentum in the Lifestream, or what some may call the socail media news feed.

    There is a lot more to social media than meets the eye and certainly a lot more than what you seem to understand.

    I think the bigger problem this film faces is the doom and gloom subject matter is too realistic and people don’t want to be reminded that economy sucks, people are out of work, the planet really is heating up and we have another outbreak of the flu, etc.