Promo Flames Out

It seemed like a good idea at the time. New Line Cinema wanted to hype “Running Scared,” an R-rated shoot-’em-up thriller aimed at young men. Through previous campaigns, especially high-impact Web efforts that fueled the success of the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy and last summer’s “Wedding Crashers,” the studio has earned a well-deserved reputation for finessing campaigns tailored to hard-core movie junkies and casual fans alike.

This time, though, the studio stumbled. To promote “Running Scared,” it launched a hyper-violent, sexually explicit — and inordinately entertaining — online video game that featured, among other things, a male character performing oral sex on a woman. A few weeks in advance of the movie’s debut, traffic on the site surged in excess of 60,000 unique visitors a day — not bad for a film with a marketing budget that’s not even in shouting range of summer blockbusters like “Mission: Impossible III.”

Then the National Institute on Media and the Family got involved, issuing a “National Parental Warning” about the online video game’s content, and in response New Line tweaked the game to exclude the sexually explicit material. The game may have achieved the goal of raising awareness for “Running Scared,” but didn’t do much for attendance: The movie opened to $3.38 million in domestic box office during its first three days in theaters, earning a meager $6.86 million in its 40-odd-day run.

What’s a studio, video game publisher, or male-focused marketer to do?

While New Line declined to comment for this story, marketing pundits mostly laud the studio’s efforts. “I’m not sure there is a ‘too far’ for the 18- to-34-year-old audience,” says Kirk Olson, vice president, consumer strategist-media/entertainment at Iconoculture, a marketing and trend consultancy. “They’ve been raised on Jerry Springer and ‘The Man Show.’ In some cases, you almost have to push those buttons.”

So what’s the upshot from the “Running Scared” promotion? That smart, innovative promotional planning guarantees you nothing, and that the buzz around an online or offline promotion, however intense, often doesn’t translate into buzz around a product or property. As a result, when attempting to reach 18- to 34-year-olds, experts advise against deploying the subversive merely for its own sake.

“You can play within the lines, so to speak, without getting people like [the National Institute on Media and the Family] jumping down your throat,” says Rob Stone, founder and co-president of Cornerstone Promotion. He recommends deploying content that’s quirky without pushing too many buttons. For example, take Nike’s offline events targeting “sneaker freaks” and Toyota’s Scion push.

“If you go mass, you won’t connect with this audience,” Stone adds. “If you push too hard, you’re going to upset some of the parents’ groups and even then you might come across as inauthentic. But give New Line credit — it went down swinging.”

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