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The Death and Return of Viral Marketing

June 1, 2012 1 comment

The Death and Return of Superman is one of the most subtle, interesting, and awesome attempts at viral marketing I’ve seen in a long time. On the surface, it’s a 17 minute YouTube video summarizing a couple dozen issues of the Superman comic circa 1992 when Superman died and came back to life. If you haven’t already watched it, it’s funny, engaging, and well worth your time.

But watching it, you might start to think something larger is at play than someone posting a well-made YouTube video to make some cash. First off, there are none of the usual YouTube ads. And… was that Elijah Wood? And Mandy Moore? And why does the narrator appear in one scene wearing a shirt that says “Go see Chronicle”?

Digging deeper, as best I can tell, this whole project was a sort of calling card for Max Landis the writer and narrator of The Death and Return of Superman. The message is, “If you think this YouTube video I wrote was well done, you should go see this movie that I wrote called Chronicle which by the way was released in theaters the day I uploaded this.” And the truth is, I wasn’t aware of Chronicle before I saw the video and it made me really want to see it. If just ten percent of the million and a half YouTube viewers followed the breadcrumb and found out about Chronicle, that’s still a pretty effective advertising campaign.

So on the surface, it’s a fun YouTube video. Going one level deeper, it’s a fascinating attempt to use YouTube to promote a commercial endeavor. But if we go even more level deeper, The Death and Return of Superman is an intriguing comment on the nature of social media and user-generated content (what we used to call Web 2.0).

First off, the video was clearly shot on a shoestring budget but is absolutely loaded with talent in its production. From the acting, writing, editing, music, and even the “visual effects”, it’s clear that this was the product of very talented people.

But even ten years ago, something like this would have been impossible. If someone had managed to get a bunch of their Hollywood friends to pitch in for, I assume, free to make a video to subtly promote a theatrical movie, the equipment costs for cameras, production costs for editing, and distribution costs would have made the project cost-ineffective. As it is today, I would expect most of those things were borrowed rather than bought: shot on a friend’s camera, put together on another friend’s copy of Final Cut Pro, and uploaded to Google’s YouTube.

They also embrace something that’s been happening in movies for years: the separation of content and credits. It’s hard to know whether or not movies would still end with minutes of scrolling names if not for union and guild contracts, but it might look something like what The Death and Return of Superman did when they made the credits an entirely separate video. But that video isn’t actually all that useful. When I thought I recognized the actress playing Titania (I did, she was Sarah Shahi, who I recognized from Life), I didn’t go looking at the end of the video or in the related videos section for a credits roll. I went to IMDB.

In decades past, credits were an everlasting record saying who worked on the film that could not be divorced from the film itself. It was apparently too risky to file that information away in a separate place where someone could go track it down if they were interested in finding out who had played what role or served as best boy.

But in the age of the internet, there are organizations, most notably IMDB, that have as their sole purpose aggregating and archiving that information. This is a radical shift in the nature of knowledge. Where once you had to tightly couple metadata (credits) with content (the movie), a project like The Death and Return of Superman shows that the internet allows you to simply make the information available and the aggregators will find it and syndicate it.

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