Marketing The Dark Knight: A Viral Revolution

The Dark Knight Defaced Poster

“I Believe in Harvey Dent.”

“Why So Serious?”

These are two phrases that have stuck with us over the past year. They really showcase how The Dark Knight marketing unfolded–it was a two-fold approach and both sides of this viral marketing tool worked wonders.

Before The Dark Knight, viral marketing was kind of a joke. Yes, websites were devoted to various projects like Cloverfield. I remember the legit website for the memory-erasing company in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. The viral marketing of old served as just a clever ploy to start marketing a film, but few people really took notice. The Dark Knight marketing got people involved. Granted, the people that got involved were probably those who were going to see the movie opening weekend anyway, but MY GOD was it fun.

Time-line for The Dark Knight viral marketing:

I Believe in Harvey DentIn May 2007, the firm handling the marketing, 42 Entertainment, began with a single image of Aaron Eckhart as Dent (this same image would soon appear on flyers, small posters, and t-shirts). Soon after that, came out with a vandalized or “Jokerized” image of Dent that had a space at the bottom where you could submit your email address. With every email address submitted, a tiny pixel would be removed. In a short, short amount of time (I believe less than 24 hours later) enough people had submitted their email addresses to the website that all the pixels were gone and we had ourselves our first glimpse of Heath Ledger as the Joker.

The image was on the site a brief time, but long enough for friends to copy the image and add it to their Facebook profiles. The Joker faded away, and a message containing upper and lower-cased “ha”‘s were left in its wake, as well as a message saying “See you in December.” Most people took that to mean the release of the teaser trailer, and they were right, although the teaser had no images, just sound-bytes of Bruce, Alfred, and the Joker.

Why So SeriousIn a stroke of genius marketing, The Dark Knight took over Comic Con ’07. A co-worker and I sat in his cubicle literally all afternoon refreshing as well as sites like Aint It Cool News to see how we could move through this puzzle of a site. The problem that day was that so many other people were on the website that the loading time was horrendously slow. Alas, that was a day that no work got done in my department. We got pics of people in Clown costumes (sent via WhySoSerious and the Gotham newspaper website for The Gotham Times), there were messages inside balloons, telephone numbers to call, airplanes giving messages from above, a riddle involving the Joker laughing in Morse code. It was intense. Our payoff was a picture of the Joker in a car, a pic of him holding a knife to Rachel Dawes’ (Maggie Gyllenhaal) throat, and a few other little nuggets for the fans (including the advance teaser trailer which most of us had already found on YouTube, except now it was in HD). For more on this check out Movie Snobs for a good re-cap of the day.

Living in Chicago, I was privy to a plethora of clever marketing. At Wizard World ’07 I got into The Dark Knight panel featuring Christopher Nolan, his brother and co-writer Jonathan, Bale, Eckhart*, Gary Oldman, and a DC or Warner rep (I can’t remember which). They all raved about Heath Ledger’s performance (who was still alive and well at the time, mind you) and Nolan was kind enough to show us a 2-minute montage from the film. It wasn’t completely rendered and the sound was choppy, but it gave us a nice glimpse into the tone of the film–and images of the Joker moving. FSR recently posted this clip, too, if you want to watch it. I also walked away with a Dark Knight t-shirt that had “Ha Ha Ha” in black light ink going across it.

The Gotham TimesThere was also the release of the opening scene of the film in IMAX as attached to I Am Legend. This wasn’t “viral” marketing, because it was set up by Warner, it was just good marketing in general. The IMAX scene showed the opening bank robbery of the film and our crafty introduction to the Joker.

I can’t think of a film that was more smartly marketed than The Dark Knight. Warner Bros. has dropped a lot of money on marketing–reportedly over $100 million–in advertisements such as commercials, billboards, posters, buses, an Formula One racecars. Factor in toys, games, and other promotional materials. Factor in the Six Flags Dark Knight Coaster. This stuff costs money and Warner Bros. held nothing back in promoting The Dark Knight (which had to be that way since it’s the only Batman movie without “Batman” in the title).

There was more viral marketing, too, but this didn’t have the same payoff or excitement that the early Comic Con event had. For instance, if you were in select cities, you could go and visit the I Believe In Harvey Dent campaign vans or “Dentmobiles” (casually timed with the Republican and Democratic Presidential Primaries) and get stickers and t-shirts. Rachel Dawes gave a video press conference. You could literally vote for Harvey Dent. If you submitted your cell phone number you could get a phone call from Dent himself proclaiming that we can “take back Gotham.”

The Clown Travel AgencyThere was also the Clown Travel Agency bit. A list of cities and terrible puns led fans to bowling alleys where very few lucky first-comers got a bowling ball bag complete with a custom ball and a cell phone that dialed out to a creepy recording. One of the more benevolent moments, as compared to the instructions viral-followers were given that led them to call the Gotham City Police who then blackmailed unsuspecting FSR Staffer Cole Abaius was one of the masterminds tricked on this early April evening.

Earlier this month there was a Citizens for Batman rally in Chicago and New York which was apparently something of a clusterf*ck. The only problem with the viral marketing recently is that people have already seen the theatrical trailers, and NOW we just want to see the movie. I don’t know how much this viral marketing served to inform people who didn’t know about the film, though. But that question was answered when the campaign rewarded participants for their loyalty by giving away free passes to IMAX pre-screenings of The Dark Knight, courtesy of the WhySoSerious’ “Human Resources” dept. A great finale to a fun ride.

Like I said before, this was the kind of a self-promotion campaign that you were either in on the joke or not, but it got us excited. It’ll be interesting to see if another movie can generate as much buzz on the internet or via viral marketing as The Dark Knight.

There’s also the other, more intangible, marketing. I carpool to work everyday and I was talking to a co-worker about how excited I was to see the film. My co-worker, who did not see Batman Begins, asked if it was because Heath Ledger had died.

Why So Serious PosterJoanna Weiss of the Boston Globe wrote an interesting article which asked this–“How do you take a character who’s central to the entire plot of the film and pretend that he doesn’t exist?” On January 22nd, the world lost Heath Ledger. WhySoSerious, IBelieveInHarveyDent, and The Dark Knight home page all had a picture of Ledger with a white background in memoriam to the actor. The marketing stopped completely for a few days. Viral marketing shifted away from the Joker and began to focus more on Harvey Dent.

However, that all changed when word was beginning to leak out about how good Ledger is in The Dark Knight. Oscar season began the moment Peter Travers saw the film and said he would sign up for a campaign to get Ledger a posthumous Academy Award. Promotion shifted back toward the Joker as billboards stared us all in the face and clips and trailers featured more of the Joker’s dialogue.

This goes to show you that the studios could only do so much to promote ANY film, not just a Batman film. I think it’s a little ominous to say that Ledger’s death could attribute to the box office success of The Dark Knight (which is selling out showings way in advance and is expecting to have the largest opening weekend a film has ever seen), but when someone asks me if I’m interested in the film because the man died, well, that goes beyond promotion. With TiVo people can avoid the commercials. By not looking for it, you could avoid all the viral marketing. The truth is that some people, along with Matt Lauer, will wonder if playing the Joker led in some form or another to Ledger’s death. Like I said before, I think that’s a little too ominous and bleak, and I agree with Christian Bale who said that it shows “a complete lack of understanding of acting.”

I’d like to think that even if you see The Dark Knight to try and “figure out” Ledger’s death, you’ll instead leave having seen a fully-formed, miraculous transformation of one actor who left this earth too soon. I’d like to think that people aren’t such voyeurs–but in a world where we can see Britney Spears going commando with a quick Google search, nothing surprises me anymore.

*The day after Wizard World ’07 I ran the Chicago Half-Marathon. I turned a corner downtown and there was Aaron Eckhart watching runners go by. I yelled “TWO-FACE” and flung a triumphant fist into the air as I passed. He smiled and said something. To this day I still wonder what.

For more on the viral marketing of The Dark Knight, we would suggest The Dark Knight ARG Wiki.

Josh is a multi-tasker. He's been a cubicle monkey for the last few years, a veteran stage actor of over 10 years, a sometimes commercial actor, occasional writer of articles, a once-legend in the realm of podcastery, purveyor of chuckles in his homecity of Chicago as he has trained with the world renown iO (Improv Olympic) and Second City Conservatory and performed with both theaters, and can be seen doing a thing that actor's do on the website of his online sitcom, Josh also likes to tackle the beef of his bio with one run-on sentence, because it befits his train-of-thought.

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