James Urbaniak (urbaniak) wrote,

This Week in Advertising: The Boy Who Cried Viral

"A lot of what we do to some degree, and we’re not afraid to admit, is trial and error. When you’re an agency that’s doing stuff that’s never been done before, who knows what’s going to happen?"
-Jason Klein, founder, Special Ops Media
So Heidi "The Beat" MacDonald and countless other entertainment-related bloggers posted what appeared to be some bootlegged wardrobe test photos of Scarlett Johansson in the upcoming Lionsgate feature "The Spirit." The next day Heidi and the others received a cease and desist email--not, as Beat commenter Jeff Trexler notes, from Lionsgate legal but from the marketing company hired to promote the film online: Special Ops Media, a firm known for its "viral campaigns and guerrilla marketing efforts."* The good professor smells a rat:
One of the intuitive principles confirmed by cog-psych research is the appeal of taboo, scarcity and perceived persecution. I can’t think of a better way to co-opt social media than to get folks to think that they’re defying Big Brother. A faux C&D is a way of making people feel that they’re important, that they need to post the pics lest the pics disappear and that promoting the pics–and thereby the film–strikes a blow for human freedom.

Another theme from cognitive research is the way in which the drive to learn and transmit gossip is hard-wired in our brains. Note that the “leaked” pictures were apparently from costume studies, with the actress not smiling and the clothes not quite perfect. It’s imperfect information to which we shouldn’t have access–which makes us want to see it and pass it on.

We’ve already seen this strategy in the Marvel Boy viral, in which the company would seem to have used a fake C&D to create a sense that the site was leaking taboo gossip that could disappear at any moment. For Marvel Boy, the breakdown came, it seems, with the apparent lack of contingency plans for when uncontrolled gossip appeared in the comments thread. My guess is the Spirit marketing strategy might have been a bit more airtight if Special Ops hadn’t IDed itself overtly or included the odd pseudo-legal capitalized phrase “Copyright Infringement Violation,” which is what led me to look ‘em up in the first place.
So: were the photos really leaked by, say, some wayward wardrobe department intern? Or is all just a marketing ploy?

As I said in the comments to Heidi's original post, I was "actually kind of shocked" to see the wardrobe photos. My initial assumption was that it was an unauthorized leak. I'm an actor and I've "posed" for many wardrobe test photos in my time. They are, essentially, snapshots, shot quickly by the costume department with no regard to lighting or composition beyond the general visibility of the clothes. The actors are certainly not "in character" as they stiffly model these tentative and imperfectly-fitting costume pieces. (Before the digital age the wardrobe photo camera of choice was the Polaroid.) So my first reaction was "Hey! People aren't supposed to see those." But in the age of agencies like, well, Special Ops Media, Jeff Trexler's theory makes perfect sense.

But, seriously: why would a studio promoting a film (let alone a visually arresting comic book adaptation) want to release intrinsically awkward reference shots that register no energy or sense of behind-the-scenes excitement? Shine a public light on them and all wardrobe photos look tacky. ("Scarlett looks as though she’s gearing up for a sketch on MAD TV" said a Beat commenter.) Are we to believe that the producers, the leading lady (stars have contractual approval of all publicity images that feature their likenesses) and the marketing company all thought it would be a good idea to "leak" and then "prohibit" these anti-pinups to generate buzz in the nerdosphere? Or did Special Ops Media simply plan to "leak" them and then, only after realizing the online reaction was less than overwhelmed, proceed to "prohibit" them? Or was Special Ops merely given the job of plugging an actual leak because they're the movie's online marketing people? Who can tell anymore? Mr. Wizard, get me the hell out of here.

*In addition to "Viral marketing," the "Services" section of SOM's website offers "Behavioral & contextual marketing" and (God help us) "Fan evangelization services." Which I'm guessing is an extra-creepy term for stealth marketing.

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