Inspired Insanity

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by: Jonathan Salem Baskin

A movie theater chain in San Antonio, Texas, caused a terrorism scare with promotional campaign for The Dark Knight that was a true bit of inspired insanity.

The buzz campaign unfolded like this:

  • a classified ad ran in the local newspaper, recruiting evil clowns, a la the Joker
  • respondents (about 2 dozen) were invited to attend the movie premier
  • a faux news report said that a Batman symbol had appeared on a wall, and suggested that "the clowns" were up to no good (the local Fox affiliate was in cahoots)
  • another story said that the San Antonio Spurs’ mascot had been kidnapped while trying to remove the graffiti
  • chocolate cakes were mailed to local media, wired to look like a bomb, with notes threatening that "if you want to see the coyote [the mascot] alive, go to the movie theater [for the premier]."

One of Fox’s competing TV affiliates called in the San Antonio Fire Department, and the gig was up…or, more accurately, it generated even more publicity.

In our Age of Unease, with fears of terrorism never far from our collective consciousness, the very premise of the campaign was stupid. Tactics like a cake wired to look like a bomb bring back unfortunate memories of the LED boards that Cartoon Network hired a guerrilla marketing firm to plaster around Boston; in both instances, the culprits’ (and the shmarty-pants new media nutcases) reaction that they "never intended to provoke a negative reaction" is as offensive as it is disingenuous. 

If you’re going to yell fire in a crowded movie theater, at least own up to it afterwards.

And anyway, isn’t guerrilla marketing is supposed to get people involved in ways that aren’t obviously marketing? It only works if it can exploit the processes and preconceptions of the media, and of unwitting consumers. If nobody thinks that the campaigns are real — i.e. everybody is "in" on the joke — then it wouldn’t be guerrilla, but rather mainstream marketing. A few clowns might participate in it, but not be worth laughing about. 

Yet I think the San Antonio campaign was inspired insanity.

Branding needs this sort of creativity to make the aspirations of marketers relevant to the real lives of consumers. There’s a gaping void there right now, separating the brilliant digital realizations of brand experience available to anybody who looks for it on the Internet, and the messy, I’ve-not-got-5-seconds-to-give-you-my-attention reality of people’s daily lives. 

No matter how hip the images appear, or the texts read, branding that comes from companies is still strangely uncool, and mostly useless. So the idea of creating a campaign outside of the traditional marketing channels is right on target. 

I’ve written before about the potential of alternate reality games, and how marketers could apply the interactive game model to the very foundation of their brands and marketing strategies. Engagement can mean so much more than just a glorified exposure to branding messages. Our experience of media, and behaviors like search, collaboration, and purchase, could be recast as steps in a narrative that might exhibit game qualities, though never get called a game.

"Dark Knight Promo Bombs," read the Brandweek headline on the San Antonio experiment. I wish there was more analysis of how and why it succeeded.

Threatening terrorism was dumb, and relying on fear for a buzz campaign is no different than holding a gun to a puppy’s head and demanding customers buy your product, "or the dog gets it. "

But the creativity behind the campaign was truly inspired insanity. We need more of it.

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