The Best and Worst Viral Marketing Campaigns in Film History

Xenomorphobic propaganda, creepy cult videos, fake political campaigns, and other feats of advertising

If falling in love with an android is wrong, then we don’t want to be right. The Prometheus team released a new viral video this week that captured a lot of peoples’ attention. We were already sold on seeing the upcoming Ridley Scott film — originally intended as a prequel to the director’s classic 1979 film Alien, about a space crew searching for the origins of humanity who happen upon something much more terrifying. The new clip featuring star Michael Fassbender has increased our anticipation tenfold.

In the viral bit, Fassbender’s David appears in an advertisement for sinister corporation Weyland Industries. He’s playing an android indistinguishable from humans that promises he can carry out directives others might find “distressing or unethical.” Although the video is under three minutes long, it’s clear that the actor’s android transformation is flawless and delightfully creepy. We’re dying to see more. The video made us recall other fantastic viral marketing promotions that got us incredibly anxious for opening night. Take a look at our picks below.

District 9

If you lived in a big city and were waiting for a bus in 2009, chances are you came across the above poster campaign for the Peter-Jackson-produced District 9. The film about an extraterrestrial race forced into slums while trying to live amongst humans on earth got its messages of xenophobia and segregation across loud and clear with their widespread campaign (that also included various stickers and other posters/signs). Viral websites and blogs — one run by aliens complaining about the government’s relocation efforts — also popped up.

Fight Club

Most people are familiar with the bar of pink soap featuring the Fight Club title embossed on top. The image not only appeared in the film’s poster design, but was almost used in a viral marketing campaign — until Fox execs shot the idea down. Director David Fincher also created several fake public service announcements featuring the film’s stars, but the studio wasn’t convinced they marketed the film properly. In the end, Fincher was unhappy with the studio’s campaign turnout — but luckily his viral videos have been living on YouTube for all of us to enjoy. Tyler Durden talking about drinking urine? Sure, don’t mind if I do.

The Dark Knight

The Dark Knight Rises’ viral marketing campaign has seen some impressive results so far, but it really all began with the 2008 movie The Dark Knight. Warner Bros. owes Joker — brilliantly played by the late Heath Ledger — a huge debt, since his makeup-covered mug plastered the web, leading legions of fans to various clues about the superhero movie. The video explains how the scavenger hunt around the world immersed fans in the movie well before it hit the big screen, helping to make the second installment in Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy an unforgettable event. Website WhySoSerious.com is still active if you want to stroll down memory lane.

The Muppets

Twelve years between Muppet movies is too long for our taste. Thankfully we were recently treated to a new film featuring our favorite puppet pals. The Muppets’ campaign featured some of the funnest, cleverest viral bits we can remember in recent years. Spoofing all the upcoming, big summer blockbusters — includingTwilight, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and The Avengers — we watched as a classic act made themselves relevant for a new, younger generation.

Paranormal Activity

Oren Peli was a first-time director when he made supernatural shaky-cam flick Paranormal Activity for a mere $15,000 in his own home, using unknown actors. The movie went on to gross hundreds of millions of dollars worldwide. The first film’s grassroots marketing efforts went viral thanks to the use of website Eventful.com, where people could “demand” the movie play in their city. Twitter also helped give it a giant push. Viral videos for parts two and three became more elaborate — and terrifying. Mysterious VHS tapes figured into the mix for the most recent movie, which showed siblings Katie and Kristi as young girls haunted by ghosts. The franchise’s campaign success has spawned numerous copycats — particularly for the horror genre — using a similar, spooky approach to drum up ticket sales.

Inception

As with director Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight viral marketing campaign, his mind-bender Inception saw an elaborate push on the web. After a teaser trailer featuring not much more than the movie’s spinning top, the studios released an online game called Mind Crime. Once one level was completed — which could be done using QR codes linking to an online instruction manual — the film’s poster was revealed. The next level of the game shared a hidden trailer, and eventually more surreal marketing tactics were unleashed. You can still play the game over here, or just watch this video to get a feel for it.

Toy Story 3

We all know most Pixar movies are really for grownups (ok, probably all), which is why the studio had us eating from the palm of their hand when they created a 1980s-inspired commercial to promote Toy Story 3. The video featured the leader of the toys at the Sunnyside Daycare Center, Lots-O’-Huggin’ Bear. Major points for the VHS static. Pixar’s Ken doll viral videos were also a hit with audiences.