Monthly Archives: January 2008

Saving Face

Maybe it’s uncouth for me to, as a reaction to an actor’s recent death, wonder how Warner Bros. will rework their huge viral marketing campaign for the upcoming film, The Dark Knight, co-starring the late Heath Ledger, which is due to open this summer.

As an avid Batman fan, I’ve been anticipating this film since I found out Ledger was playing the Joker – there were several rumors that Jack Nicholson would reprise the role. Being an avid fan also makes me a prime target for the “leaked” images of the haunting mutilated face of the joker which brilliantly turned into recent banner ads for Facebook and Myspace so that even if your internet activity is limited to networking sites, exposure to the campaign is almost guaranteed.

For months now, Warner Bros. has invested in a pumped up viral marketing plan and been maintaining a static site of the Batman which now serves as a link to the Warner Bros. official message of condolences for Heath Ledger’s passing. However, around the same time as the website launch, according to blogger Kaitlyn Wilkin’s blog Catch Up Lady, false campaign posters for “Harvey Dent for District Attourney” – Harvey Dent is the alter-ego of the Batman villain “Two-Face”.

The images to the right are both from Wilkin’s blog.

These unmarked posters appeared in major cities like Los Angeles all of which were defaced within 48-72 hours as though by the Joker. These posters coincided with a url – which then launched an e-mail campain ultimately sent users back to an interactive promotional site.

According to Alex Billington of, the marketing Einsteins at Warner Bros. had a huge presence on the web through an online version of the fictitious newspaper The Gotham Times and a website for the Gotham transit system – both of these sites, like the posters had a conversion phase in in which the Joker has seemingly overtaken the sites. Their online presence has, by the nature of discourse, created its own free buzz campaign in the blogosphere. People are going crazy about these promotions. This method harkens back and could well have been started by the Snakes On A Plane phenomenon or the recently HBO-picked-up Flight of the Conchords who got their big-break on YouTube.

The thing that’s cool about this, is that it’s relatively easy and cheap to pull off. It’s the proven age-old formula of strategic and clever posters paired with the available and basic technology of easily launched websites and e-mail campaigns which are driven by a cult with such a huge and die-hard following that its success is inevitable. It’s a dream promotional campaign for an independent film company, but it’s being carried out by a studio who has the dream budget.

This brings us back to the reworking idea that I mentioned at the beginning of the post. The problem with this campaign in conjunction with the untimely death of Heath Ledger is that it’s very centered around the character of the Joker. The death of the actor evoked a strong reaction in Hollywood as well as his legions of fans – fans like myself who, as a teen-aged girl, fell in love with his rugged Australian looks and charm in movies like Ten Things I Hate About You and The Patriot.

That said, with many of their ads featuring the actor’s mutilated and painted costumed face, reactions are no longer of excitement and anticipation, but of sorrow and remorse for the actor’s death.

So what does a studio gearing up to launch a summer blockbuster do? Well, according to Brandweek’s The Biz, the promotional partners, like Hershey’s who came out with Bat symbol shaped chocolates will not rework their campaigns because they, unlike Warner Bros. centered their campaigns around the main hero, rather than the Joker. The article says that Warner Bros. has not commented on any change to their campaign which prominently feature Ledger’s character and his edgy and flashy reinvention of the role.

The only change I could find was the previously mentioned static site which features Warner Bros.’s message of condolences. This last move was appropriate because the studio’s probably going into crisis management and going to have to balance the rest of the campaign which would normally be working its way up to its promotional peak without looking like it’s exploiting the tragedy. Quite the public relations pickle.

This PR saga is very near and dear to me as a follower of the Batman cult so I’ll be following this subject very closely, for sure. Stay tuned, all.