Nobody ever said marketing a movie was easy. There’s so much to consider. A campaign has to be true to the nature of the film being promoted, it has to be clever or catchy enough to stand out, and it has to attract the engaged interest of the target audience. For this reason, the best marketers look for original, inventive ways to sell movies. A good campaign can absolutely make a positive impact at the box office, so creativity pays off.
Such creativity can also backfire, though. Over the years, there have been some marketing efforts that went astonishingly, and sometimes humorously, wrong. Those are the ones we’re looking at here. Below are fifteen notable examples of marketing failures that created embarrassment, turmoil, controversy, hurt feelings, and/or comedy. Even though none of them came off as intended, they all share a common trait, which is that they are absolutely compelling examples of publicity efforts gone amusingly haywire.
Here are the 15 Biggest Movie Marketing Fails Of All Time.
15. The Mummy – Missing trailer sound
Tom Cruise’s new movie The Mummy is expected to be one of the biggest hits of 2017. After all, it has a major movie star known for his consistency in delivering high-quality action cinema. It takes a horror concept that has been around since the 1930s and puts a fresh, modern-day spin on it. The film also boasts an impressive assembly of behind-the-scenes talent, from director Alex Kurtzman to screenwriters Jon Spaihts and Christopher McQuarrie. Universal Pictures is working overtime to get audiences excited for their big summer release.
That’s what made their recent blunder so embarrassing. The IMAX version of the trailer was uploaded to the internet without a complete sound mix. This snafu meant that people who watched the trailer only heard the actors’ vocal tracks and virtually nothing else. The problem was most pronounced during shots of an airplane crash, where the only audible sounds were Cruise and an actress screaming and grunting. Rather than being exciting, the effect was unintentionally comical. Certainly not what Universal was going for. The trailer was soon replaced with a corrected one, but not before the internet had a field day sharing the wrong one.
14. Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film For Theaters – Mooninite scare
The main characters in Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim Series Aqua Teen Hunger Force are a milkshake, an order of french fries, and a meatball. Their nemeses are a couple of two-dimensional aliens that look like something out of an old video game. These “Mooninites” like to show up to cause trouble for our edible heroes, and they frequently leave a trail of destruction in their wake. The whole series is good, goofy fun. In 2007, it inspired a movie, creatively titled Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film For Theaters. It also inspired a panic in the city of Boston.
As part of a guerrilla marketing campaign for the film, battery-powered LED signs featuring the Mooninites were hidden around the city. (They looked similar to the Lite-Brite toys many of us played with as children.) People saw and reported them to officials, who weren’t in on the gag and therefore mistook them for improvised explosive devices. Exposed wires and visible power sources contributed to that misunderstanding, and bomb squads were called in to investigate.
There were plenty of repercussions to this failed stunt. Two men hired to install the displays were arrested, the marketing company and Turner Broadcasting (which owned the series) had to pay the Boston Police Department and the Department of Homeland Security for the cost of the emergency response, and the general manager of Cartoon Network resigned.
13. The Birth of a Nation – Presidential debate tweet
The Birth of a Nation was a huge hit at the Sundance Film Festival, inspiring Fox Searchlight to pony up a reported $17.5 million for the rights to distribute it. The film is based on the true story of Nat Turner (played by writer/director Nate Parker), a former slave who led a bloody revolt in the antebellum South. Apparently knowing that some of the film’s themes of racial oppression still have relevance today, Searchlight decided to use the 2016 Presidential election as a platform to promote it.
In late September, the studio’s official Twitter account posted a side-by-side picture of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton from one of the debates. On Trump’s side, the words “The Birth of a Nation” were photoshopped into the background behind him, while Clinton had “in theaters October seventh” behind her. The tweet read, “Hil and Don know what’s up.” The tweet was widely criticized as a dumb move, given that rape allegations against Parker from 1999 had resurfaced around this time. Tying the film’s promotion to Trump, who famously referred to Mexicans as “rapists,” seemed like a great way to make people focus on the very scandal they were trying to draw attention away from, especially once Twitter users began mocking the tweet on that very basis.
12. Arrival – Geographic poster mistake
By most accounts, Arrival is one of 2016’s best films. It’s the story of a linguist (Amy Adams) trying to find a way to communicate with some of the alien beings who have landed at various places around the world. The movie is, in some ways, a modern day Close Encounters of the Third Kind, with a final twist that reveals deeper-than-expected themes of human existence and the way that the best things in life help to compensate for having to deal with the worst.
In promoting a thoroughly enjoyable science-fiction story, Paramount Pictures didn’t anticipate angering Hong Kong, but that’s exactly what they did. Twelve teaser posters were created for the movie, each showing an alien orb hovering over a different city. One of those posters depicted an orb above Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbor. Photoshopped in the foreground was the Oriental Pearl Tower in Shanghai, which is part of China. It wasn’t just the geographic incorrectness that raised ire, it was the fact that China and Hong Kong are not exactly on the best of terms politically. Outraged Hong Kong citizens saw that poster and complained online, using the hashtag #HongKongIsNotChina. The offending image was quickly replaced.
11. X-Men: Apocalypse – Strangling billboard
When it came time to market X-Men: Apocalypse, 20th Century Fox knew it wanted something that would really convey the dramatic threat the mutant superheroes would be facing in their latest big-screen adventure. Apocalypse is one of the most popular villains from the comic books, so bringing him into the movies was certain to draw the enthusiasm of fans. But those who only knew the X-Men from their cinematic excursions needed to be clued in to his fearsome power.
To get that idea across, they used a very specific image from the movie for their billboards: Apocalypse violently grabbing Jennifer Lawrence’s Mystique by the throat. The sight of a male character so blatantly abusing a woman provoked an uncomfortable reaction from both genders. Actress Rose McGowan was one of the most vocal critics, blasting the billboards for insensitivity, while pointing out that context-free imagery of violence against a woman was no way to sell a movie. Fox ultimately apologized for the ad, quickly ordering all the billboards to be removed.
This was not the only time something like this happened. Billboards for the Elisha Cuthbert thriller Captivity caused a similar uproar in 2007. They featured graphic images of women being abused, with words like “abduction” and “torture” superimposed on them.
10. The Disappointments Room – Abrupt release
Relativity Media is an independent film company that has worked for several years to become a full-fledged player in the distribution game. They’ve had a few minor successes and a lot of flops along the way, so in 2015, the company filed for bankruptcy. Consequently, they couldn’t afford to release any movies. Their titles, which included the Zach Galifianakis comedy Masterminds and the Kate Beckinsale thriller The Disappointments Room, were consequently shelved.
After emerging from bankruptcy, Relativity CEO Ryan Kavanaugh was eager to get back into the game. In mid-August of 2016, he announced via Twitter that The Disappointments Room was moving from a previously-scheduled November release date to September 9th. You read that right — the announcement was made a mere three weeks beforehand. Making matters worse, what was supposed to be a limited release with a day-and-date VOD debut turned into a full-fledged wide release. About a week out from that Sept. 9th date, Relativity decided to put the movie into more than 1,000 theaters, scrapping the VOD angle altogether. The abrupt decision left no time to market or promote the movie, meaning that it popped up in multiplexes without any sort of public awareness. Not surprisingly, given that few people knew what it was or that it was even coming out, The Disappointments Room opened dismally, earning just $1.4 million. This is a textbook example of how not to distribute a film.
9. Forgetting Sarah Marshall – Anti-Sarah Marshall posters
In Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Jason Segel plays Peter Bretter, a guy who is unceremoniously dumped by his titular girlfriend of five years, portrayed by Kristen Bell. Heartbroken, he tries to move past her by going on a vacation to Hawaii. He starts to fall for the front desk clerk (Mila Kunis) at the resort where he’s staying. Then Sarah shows up at the same resort with her new beau, making it harder for him to escape his heartbreak.
Sometimes, the easiest way to get through a breakup is to start hating the person we’re no longer dating. With that idea in mind, Universal dreamed up a series of anti-Sarah Marshall posters and outdoor advertisements that were plastered across American cities. The ads were basic white with black lettering, containing angry phrases like “You suck, Sarah Marshall” and “You DO look fat in those jeans, Sarah Marshall.” What they perhaps didn’t consider is that Sarah Marshall isn’t exactly an uncommon name. Real-life Sarah Marshalls found themselves the subject of ridicule from the posters, and they weren’t too happy about it. One woman even went so far as to post a picture of herself online in front of a homemade sign that read “You suck, Judd Apatow,” a dig at Forgetting Sarah Marshall‘s producer.
8. Man of Steel – How does Superman shave?
Movie tie-ins have become extremely common. Anything that looks like it could be a big commercial hit probably has some kind of “promotional partner.” Animated films often have toys in kids’ meals at fast-food restaurants, for example. Sometimes there’s a clear connection between the tie-in and the movie itself, but other times, that connection seems fairly random. Such randomness can go to absurd extremes.
To promote Man of Steel, Warner Bros. entered into a deal with Gillette razors. The result was an ad campaign based around the question “How does Superman shave?” Fans were directed toward a special website where they could view various theories from people like Bill Nye the Science Guy and director Kevin Smith. The campaign was widely mocked online for its relative lameness. Given that Superman has amazing powers that include flight and super-strength, his shaving habits seemed like the least interesting thing about him. Besides, as more than one website pointed out, the answer was already known.
7. I Love You, Beth Cooper – Paid valedictorian speech
I Love You, Beth Cooper is a very bad movie based on a very funny book by Larry Doyle. It’s the story of geeky high school student Denis Cooverman (played by Paul Rust), who uses the opportunity of his high school graduation speech to finally confess his love to popular cheerleader Beth Cooper (Hayden Panettiere). All kinds of absurd complications ensue from this act.
To generate interest in the film among the target teen audience, the studio’s marketing staff made the fatal error of trying to manufacture a viral video. (The whole point of viral videos, obviously, is that they happen organically and can’t really be planned.) This video was a little more questionable than most, though. They paid 18-year-old Los Angeles high school student Kenya Mejia a reported $1,500 to shamelessly plug the movie, then imitate Denis’s stunt during her own valedictorian speech. Before her entire graduating class, the school’s faculty, and countless parents and friends in attendance, she confessed her fake love to a male peer who had no idea it was coming. All this despite the fact that she had a boyfriend. Unsurprisingly, the entire stunt backfired in spectacular fashion. The video was barely viewed online, and I Love You, Beth Cooper turned out to be a box office dud.
6. Terminator Genisys – Trailer spoilers
Terminator Genisys was supposed to be the sequel that revitalized a floundering franchise. After Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines and Terminator: Salvation left fans mostly cold, the powers that be knew they needed to bring the series back in a big, big way. In their haste to do this, an inexcusable error was made. The movie’s second trailer gave away the whole thing, including the surprise twist reveal that longtime hero John Connor was now the bad guy, and a new version of the Terminator to boot.
That was precisely the kind of plot point fans would have loved to discover while watching the film, as opposed to going in already knowing it. Furthermore, the trailer had the effect of shooting the movie in the foot. When the big surprise is a foregone conclusion, what’s the point in bothering to buy a ticket? The spoiler isn’t the only reason Terminator Genisys massively underperformed at the box office — an overall lack of quality hurt it, too — but it’s hard to deny that it didn’t do the film any favors. We’re all used to trailers giving away too much, but this was a case where there was literally nothing left for audiences to find out on their own.
5. Taken 3 – LinkedIn promotion
Does anybody actually use LinkedIn? They must, because the site is still around and it still sends regular emails recommending people to “join your network.” It is not, however, what anyone would likely dub a cool website. That’s one of several reasons why it was perplexing when the site was used to help promote the Liam Neeson action sequel, Taken 3.
Of course, Taken‘s hero, Bryan Mills, is famous for his speech in the original, wherein he boasts about his “particular set of skills.” And since LinkedIn allows people to endorse you for your own skill sets…well, you get the idea. An account was created for Mills, followed by a contest in which users would pitch their skills to him. In what has to rank as a low point in his career, Neeson filmed a YouTube video that featured Mills endorsing the winner. Aside from being a pretty square promotion, no one at 20th Century Fox seemed to give much thought to the fact that a video from a fictional character who kills a lot of people (no matter how justly) wouldn’t necessarily be appealing to a person’s potential employers.
4. The Animal/The Forsaken/Hollow Man – Fake critic blurbs
Imagine that you work in the marketing department of a major movie studio. You have the difficult task of trying to sell a bunch of upcoming movies that, quite frankly, are pretty terrible. So terrible, in fact, that you just know it will be nearly impossible to find any positive blurbs from film critics to use in the ads. What do you do?
A marketing executive at Columbia Pictures came up with a really boneheaded solution. “David Manning” was a fake film critic invented to give rave reviews to garbage movies. The non-existent writer called The Forsaken “a sexy, scary thrill-ride,” dubbed Hollow Man “one hell of a scary ride,” and said the Rob Schneider comedy The Animal was “another winner” from the producing team of Big Daddy. The Patriot, Vertical Limit, and A Knight’s Tale also received glowing notices from the fictitious critic. The kicker is that Manning was credited with working for a real outlet, a small Connecticut newspaper called The Ridgefield Press. A Newsweek report uncovered the ruse, which resulted in Columbia agreeing to an out-of-court settlement in which they refunded $5 to any moviegoer who claimed to see one of these pictures based on Manning’s “reviews.”
3. Mission: Impossible III – Musical newspaper boxes
Mission: Impossible III had a lot of action onscreen, but it also inspired some action off-screen. To promote the Tom Cruise vehicle, Paramount Pictures wanted something fun and in the exciting vein of the franchise. To this end, they came up with the idea of musical newspaper boxes. About 4,500 little devices were randomly inserted into the coin operated machines around Los Angeles and the surrounding area. Whenever someone opened the door to get their paper, the hidden gizmo would play the famous Mission: Impossible theme.
Unfortunately, a good idea turned bad when a number of citizens reported seeing the six inch long, red plastic boxes and their dangling wires tucked away inside the machines. When you remember that a staple of Mission: Impossible has always been recordings self-destructing, it’s not a shock that they might get the wrong idea. Los Angeles County’s arson squad was dispatched to a Santa Clarita location, where they blew up one of the newspaper machines, thinking that the musical device inside was a bomb. Federal officials responded to the stunt by threatening to sue Paramount and the Los Angeles Times, who authorized the use of their boxes for the promotion.
2. Last Action Hero – Rocket fail
Arnold Schwarzenegger was at the absolute peak of his popularity in 1993, coming off big hits like Total Recall, Kindergarten Cop, and Terminator 2. He was viewed in Hollywood as virtually infallible. For that reason, Last Action Hero wasn’t just expected to be the biggest hit of that summer, it was designed to be. From its earliest pre-production stages through to its eventual release, the movie was created to be a blockbuster for the ages.
That extended to the marketing. To emphasize the film’s prefabricated massiveness, Columbia Pictures paid a reported $500,000 to have its title emblazoned on a rocket that NASA was prepping to launch into space. The plan represented advertising on a suitably grand, Schwarzenegger-esque scale. Last Action Hero was set to open in mid-June, with the rocket scheduled to blast off in May. Problems delayed the launch several times, though, to the extreme detriment of the marketing campaign. It finally went into space in August — about two months after the movie had opened and flopped at the box office.
This came on the heels of another marketing misstep related to the film. A 75-foot inflatable balloon made to look like Schwarzenegger holding dynamite was put up in Times Square, just three days after the original World Trade Center bombing. Following complaints of insensitivity, the balloon was taken down and modified to replace the dynamite with a police badge.
1. Million Dollar Mystery – Big money giveaway
If you don’t remember the 1987 comedy Million Dollar Mystery, don’t feel bad. This long-forgotten turkey is more notable for its disastrous marketing gimmick than for anything onscreen. Producer Dino De Laurentiis was driving through New York City when he saw a huge line of people waiting to buy lottery tickets. He figured that if he could inspire lines like that for one of his movies, he’d be even richer than he already was.
The result was Million Dollar Mystery, a harebrained film in which a bunch of greedy goofballs go on a countrywide chase to find four briefcases, each containing a million bucks. At the movie’s end, they’ve only found three. Partnering with Glad trash bags, De Laurentiis planned to give away a million dollars to one lucky moviegoer who, following clues provided in the film, could correctly identify where the fourth case was hidden. The winner of this contest was a 14-year-old girl from Bakersfield, California, who correctly guessed that the cash was hidden in the Statue of Liberty’s nose.
Unfortunately for the intrepid producer, the movie was a colossal flop, earning just $989,033 during its box office run. That meant that the winner of the contest made more than the film that inspired it did. In every way conceivable, the marketing gimmick was disastrous.
Which of these marketing fails is your favorite? Do you know of any others? Give us your thoughts in the comments.
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