A large part of me is still surprised this movie got made. After all, a big-screen, live-action version of the Transformers franchise is pretty unlikely â€“ at least it was until about five years ago, when computer graphics got good enough to make such a movie doable in a way that wouldn’t look ridiculous.
Still, we’re talking about Transformers here. I was right in the perfect age group when the toy line/comic book/cartoon series first achieved success. I would come home after school to watch the Transformers/G.I. Joe back-to-back cartoons on TV. I collected the original Marvel comics series right up until they made â€œsuckingâ€ part of the editorial mandate. I asked for Transformers toys for Christmas and, while I know I had a bunch the only one I really remember playing with was Soundwave and his cassette tape accessories. I sat in the theater and watched the original animated movie (featuring Orson Welles as Unicron), all the while wondering who the heck finally fixed the Decepticon’s ability to shoot straight. And, as many people probably figured along with me, I thought that one attempt would make the feature film medium salted-Earth for any one who might attempt a big-screen move in the future.
I guess I was wrong because here we stand just days away from a live action, Steven Spielberg-produced, Michael Bay-directed Transformers movie. The movie does away with many of the conceits of the original franchise. The original universe mythology went something like this: The Autobots and Decepticons had been warring on their home planet of Cybertron for some number of years. The battle continued off-world when the Autobots, in desperation, launched the Ark, an interstellar space ship. The Decepticons hid on board, though, and the ship eventually crash-landed on a pre-historic Earth, with all its inhabitants out-of-commission. The ship awoke in the present day (read: The mid-80s) and scanned Earth for intelligent life. Since all the technology was machine-based it believed cars, trucks and airplanes to be the dominant lifeforms on Earth and adapted the robots to transform into domestic vehicles in order to blend in. Wackiness ensued as both parties continued their war here on Earth as both sides scrambled for Energon cubes to draw fuel from.
This new one sets the robot’s presence on Earth a bit differently. On Cybertron the Decepticons are a rogue sect of the protectors of the Allspark, the source of life and mantle of leadership on their world. To keep it safe Optimus Prime and his Autobot loyal guards jettison the Allspark into space and it eventually lands on Earth. Both sides then arrive on-planet to continue their battle for ownership but this time with humanity in the middle. The Autobots, being the good guys, befriend a number of humans (including Shia Lebouf and Megan Fox, the pairing that provides the romantic sub-plot meant to make the movie for the girlfriends getting dragged to this movie) in their efforts to keep the Allspark out of Decepticon hands. The Deceps, though, are content to trash everything and everyone in their way as they seek the power.
And that’s it in the way of setup. Let’s look at the absolutely monumental campaign Dreamworks/Paramount has put together for this movie, one of the tent poles of the summer.
The first teaser poster released did not reveal much. It simply showed what appeared to be an unfriendly robotic eye glaring at the viewer as it peered over the Earth. That eye was really one of the first looks we had had at any of the robots in the movie and it was assumed to belong to Megatron consider the intent behind the look of that one eye did not appear to be altruistic. But look at it. That’s an old-school Megatron eye, the Megatron that turned into a gun that would then jump into Starscream’s hand. It does not, in retrospect, look like it belongs on the twisted face of Megatron as he appears in the new movie. At least that’s the way it looked to me. That eye made it into another poster, but this one included a huge robotic hand crashing through a wall because, obviously, big giant robots like to destroy stuff and look menacing. And while we’re still talking teasers we can’t forget the ones that were satisfied with just showing the Autobot and Decepticon logos.
Later posters began showing more and more of the robots themselves, as well as the humans who would be appearing in the film. These are, to the best of my ability to reconstruct things, in the order in which they were released.
First came the staring contest between Optimus Prime and Megatron. Then came a series of character one-sheets of Prime, Megatron and Bumblebee, marking the latter’s first official inclusion in the print component of the campaign. Just a few weeks before the movie’s release there was another one that put Prime in the background running while the helpless humans cowered in the foreground. All of these ranged from alright to confusing. I get the need to put out some character posters, especially as an excuse to get Bumblebee into the action. But the last one here with Prime running toward something I just don’t see the point of. I really don’t. I thoroughly expected for there to be a counter poster of Megatron running in the other direction just to complete the set but nothing like that ever materialized.
The final theatrical version took the head shots that appeared on the character posters and turned them into big floating heads above the same sort of cityscape that had appeared on previous poster. This really is the epitome of studio marketing thinking, with the BFHs at the top and the minor, human characters at the bottom. For the culmination of the print campaign this is a pretty uninspired effort, but then again I haven’t thought any part of this portion of the campaign resonated with any real inspiration or enthusiasm. I’m not sure what I was expecting but all the posters in this campaign seem just sort of there. Maybe it’s because this SHOULD be so action-packed and a print poster just can’t bring that across, or at least it wasn’t able to achieve that in this instance. Whatever the case this is a weak component of the overall campaign.
Oy gevalt are there a lot of trailers. So many it’s hard to know what to call them all.
The first teaser trailer didn’t show much of anything and we later learned that it contained almost nothing that would appear in the actual feature film. Instead it showed a probe being sent to Mars, a probe whose fate had been hidden from the public. We were then shown footage from that doomed probe of it skimming along the Martian surface until it encountered a huge, plodding mechanical form that was only shown in shadow and silhouette before it destroyed the probe. The title treatment then came on and took up roughly half the trailer’s running time.
The next trailer debuted in December of 2006 and was even given its own countdown clock on Yahoo. This one finally showed us a bit of the robots who would make up the movie’s action, but only in fleeting glimpses. Instead it focused on Michael Bay stereotypes like little children in danger and teenagers holding hands as they’re about to face down some threat or another. To say I was underwhelmed would be putting it mildly.
Let me pause and take a moment before continuing on to pull a quote from an interview Bay himself did with MTV regarding the movie’s marketing campaign:
Michael Bay: There are some mind-blowing visual effects and we’re not even going to show them in the commercials. Normally when they advertise movies they show everything. Steven and I are just going to show a few pieces.
MTV: It’s that old Spielberg axiom of never revealing too much.
Bay: Yeah. You’ve got to leave a lot hidden. We’ll never show transformations. You’ll never really get a good look at the robots until the release.
At this point Bay was completely right – the trailers to date had not shown anything more than a few passing glances of the robots themselves. He would soon be overruled, it seems, by the marketing department, which wasn’t willing to leave anything hidden or to chance.
It’s almost a little pointless to run through the rest of the trailers in any sort of detail. There were about three or four additional trailers released between January and the end of June for Transformers, all of which simply were variations on the same tune. Big robots fly through the air/appear out of sand/crash down the streets as humans run away/offer to help/point big, ineffectual guns.
Each successive trailer was that much more action packed and showed that much more of the robots, with a different character having its transformation sequence highlighted in just about each one. I don’t think there was a shot in any of them that lasted more than 2 seconds, marking this as most definitely a Michael Bay production. I’m not saying they were bad, but that if you showed me each one I don’t think I’d be able to tell you the substantive difference between any of them. In fact they were all pretty good and definitely got the people talking and more and more excited about the flick coming out. You can check them all out at the Hasbro website, which is what I found to be the best such resource.
When you first visit it the official website might seem a little intimidating. But don’t worry, it’s actually not all that much to get excited or worried about. The homepage has a link to the eBay promotion (dealt with below), the ability to buy tickets from a number of online merchants as well as promos for the video game, Hasbro’s line of toys and a number to dial for some mobile content.
You’re given the choice of how you’d like to enter the site, under Protect or Destroy mode. That mostly determines whether the background you see on the site is Optimus Prime or Megatron. All of the content below, with one exception, is exactly the same no matter which option you decide on.
When you actually enter the site it’s OK if you feel underwhelmed. But first let me say this is a great design. I love the background, with either Prime or Megatron sort of broken up into random blocks around the screen. It’s actually the most interesting thing on the site. Let’s run down the contents:
- Downloads: Nine desktop backgrounds and four IM icons
- Media: Three trailers and three TV spots. Really? That’s it? The Hasbro site has more trailers. Why again isn’t the official site the master hub for all video content? COME ON!
- Gallery: An impressive 32 still, mostly images pulled from the trailers
- About: A paltry one sentence synopsis and a graphic of the credit block from the posters.
- Robots: This is the one exception between the Autobot and Decepticon variations on the site. Five robots are profiled, with the good guys appearing on the one side and the bad guys on the other. Not much to their descriptions but they do make sure to mention what kind of car each Autobot turns into.
- Human: I’d love to tell you what this is, but four days out from the movie’s release and it’s still labeled as “Coming Soon.” Tick tock, guys.
- The Game: A few notes and some stills from the official game adaptation
- Partners: Some, but not all, of the promotional partners and links to the appropriate contests/promotions or other efforts
- Visit Cybertron: This actually takes you to a new site that contains some more material. Nothing there is overly engaging and I’m not sure why it couldn’t have simply been baked into the main site. Nothing essential so don’t fret over whether to hit it or not
As usual there’s also a MySpace profile for the movie. It has most of the usual content you’d expect, including a couple of contests you can enter that relate to you adding Transformers content to your own profile. The bigger story is the the movie sponsored the ability to organize your MySpace photos into albums. That’s new functionality for MySpace users and was kind of a big deal when it first arrived.
In the wake of the second trailer, the one released in December 06, Paramount created SectorSeven.org, a site whose URL is briefly seen in that trailer. Using a password discovered by Newsarama you can log into the site and play a virtual reality game that’s amusing if nothing else. The site was updated with some new material a few days before the movie’s release.
As usual of late the movie’s soundtrack even has its own site where you can get details on the album and listen to snippets of the songs that appear on it. The soundtrack site even featured a game you could play that has you match a band from the album to a scene from the movie. Kind of fun and at least a good attempt at adding some interactivity to the site. Plus, note all the links to the various official sites and MySpace pages for the bands.
Advertising and Cross-Promotions
By my count there are at least 12 TV spots that were created and I am not going to attempt to catalog them all. ComingSoon has a great list of those and other promotional spots so I’d encourage you to head over them and check them all out.
Of course efforts by the studios to drape an L.A. building with the promotional image of Prime and Megatron in stare-down mode did not work out well, with the area’s high winds making short work of the huge-scale ads. They tried it again a month or two later and it seemed to not be such a disaster.
(Note: Many of the details in this section come from this Hollywood Reporter story.)
On to the cross-promotions and product placement deals:
It’s impossible – indeed it’s been a struggle so far – to write about the marketing campaign for Transformers without mentioning General Motors. After all, this is a movie about giant robots, some of whom turn into cars. And GM is the company that supplied the Earthly models for those cars.
Four of the Autobots, Bumblebee, Ratchet, Ironhide and Jazz all tranform from robot mode into cars from GM – a Chevy Camaro, Hummer H2, GMCTopkick and Pontiac Solstice respectively. That means GM has a huge amount of screen time for their models, some of which aren’t even available yet, since Bumblebee’s Camaro was just a concept car Bay saw at an auto show and decided to use. It also means the cars are being featured in most commercials, the video game and have been turned into toys. That’s an absolute ton of mostly organic exposure for a placement deal that cost the car maker nothing in cash upfront. All they had to do was supply two of each model for use in filming, including building the not-in-production Camaro. GM did, though, chip in some extra cars to use in the background of the movie.
Of course the GM placement deal necessitated changing the look of the cars these characters transformed into in previous incarnations of the franchise. The biggest point of discussion is Bumblebee since, in his position as a fan favorite character, any messing with him is sure to elicit outrage from those fans. Bumblebee started life as a Volkswagon Bug and not only was he featured prominently on the original cartoon but his toy was pretty inexpensive, making it a required part of any Transformers collection. There was a good amount of online discussion when it was announced he would be a Camaro in the movie, most of it fairly critical of the realities of product placement deals and how dare Bay mess with our childhood and such. Some of it I agree with, but it’s not something that could be petitioned or anything so railing against it only goes so far.
The filmmakers included a nod to Bumblebee’s heritage in a scene in the film. When Lebouf’s character is picking out a car – the Camaro that would later turn out to be Bumblebee – sitting next to it on the lot is a faded yellow VW Bug. I’m sure the folks who thought of that thought it was a nice little homage but it actually just winds up feeling like salt was being rubbed in an open wound. But oh well.
GM not needing to ante up for the placement deal itself meant they had lots of cash with which to co-brand and co-promote the movie and their involvement with it.
The company created at least two microsites for Transformers the first of which is AutoBotsRollout.com. The site featured all four of the GM-branded characters as well as Optimus Prime, simply because he’s kind of hard to ignore. There were stills, stats and more available for all four cars as well as wallpapers of both the cars and the characters. The site also featured about ten exclusive clips from the film.
The second, ChevyAutobots, was a pretty fun online game that allowed you to take any Chevrolet model and turn it into a Transformer. They also created a short little promotional ad for the site.
The carmaker’s promotional help for the movie extended, naturally, to TV as well. Michael Bay himself directed five different commercials for GM’s cars, an arrangement one person said helped to ensure the spots were in line tonally with the movie they were supporting. The spots also were part of the larger “Transform Your Ride” promotion GM ran that involved sale prices at dealerships. Spots were created specifically for GMC, PontiacBuick, as well as not one but two for Chevy in general. There’s also one specifically for the Silverado that doesn’t include movie footage but is very much part of the “Transform” campaign.
For the Pontiac Solstice, GM created a sweepstakes that ran not only in print but also online at the Maxim Web site featuring Megan Fox, who plays the love interest in the movie. The winner of the sweeps got to accompany Fox to the movie’s premiere in Los Angeles. If you take the placement of this contest on Maxim and the inclusion of Fox you can get a pretty clear picture of the demographic GM is aiming the Solstice at, something likely meant to overcome the belief that Pontiac’s are for older people and not hip young singles.
All in all, as Kevin Dugan pointed out, I’d say GM got as much out of this promotional partnership as it possibly could.
From the THR story it sounds like the inclusion of eBay as a promotional partner came about organically, as a part of the movie’s evolution. It seems a key plot point revolves around the online auction site and was included in the script before any deals were hammered out or, indeed, even discussed. But when presented with how the company was being used in the movie eBay decided to get involved in a big way.
For two days leading up to the movie’s premiere the eBay home page will be taken over by a huge advertisement for the movie, something that comes in addition to the rich media ads the site ran before that. There is also a dedicated page for all things Transformers that are being sold through the site. eBay will later auction off props and other goodies from the film.
That eBay deal also included the auction site running a user-submitted video contest dubbed “Transform Your World With eBay.” The contest asked people to upload videos of themselves saying how eBay had changed their lives. The winner of that contest won a $5,000 eBay shopping spree.
In another deal that apparently emerged from true script usage, Vespa ran a promotion giving away movie tickets to people who came in to test drive one of the scooters. Folks could also enter to win a Vespa scooter while they were in the dealership.
PepsiCo created the “Transform Your Summer” promotional contest for its Mountain Dew brand. Drink packaging was fitted with the movie’s title treatment to promote the contest, which gave away everything from Xbox gaming systems to Mountain Dew product to Paramount DVD collections. The drink got some product placement as well, with a Mountain Dew vending machine appearing in the film. Pepsi even got to create a branded Optimus Prime (classic version) that sports the Pepsi logo, with wording on the site making it seem like that’s part of his camouflage efforts.
Packages of Lunchables, the pre-packaged snack meals from Kraft, sported the movie’s logo and pictures of the Transformers. That effort got significant ad support, including in-store signage and an online component, including movie-themed games and a contest.
If you went into a Foot Locker store you probably saw the movie’s trailer on in-store monitors. The retailer also put the logo on bags along with a promotional code you could use to send a text message and access exclusive free mobile content. The online contest Foot Locker created actually tied back to Vespa, giving away a scooter to the winner.
Visa sponsored the movie’s premiere and also gave local screenings in major markets to some of its Signature-level cardholders.
If you bought a copy of the movie’s official video game at Gamestop you got a poster.
The movie was the latest to be used in the Kids Meals at Burger King, complete with toys and a bunch of other games and such, most of which are rounded-up on the fast-food retailer’s microsite for the promotion. That effort was supported with its own round of online, TV and print ads, including this one that promoted the promotion in an issue of Nick Magazine.
CBS Radio used the movie’s premiere as the launch event for a new Web video feature it created. Not only was their live video – with Bay/Spielberg commentary – but people could also register on the site to get access to exclusive trailers and such as well as enter a contest to win signed posters and other swag from the film.
Just a week or so before the movie hit screens Cartoon Network gave fans an assurance that the brand is sticking around for a while. The network is reviving the franchise in cartoon form, with a new animated series that doesn’t seem to continue or expand the movie’s mythology but once again reboot and start fresh with the characters.
Marvel Comics shoe-horned a story of The Avengers meeting the Transformers into a four-issue limited series that went back a short while in the Marvel Universe timeline to the days before Civil War and its fallout. The story involved the superhero team dealing with the presence of the robots on Earth, since somehow those two universes are the same or overlapped or something – I’m honestly not sure.
There was also a prequel limited series comic published by IDW, which owns the comics rights to Transformers currently. This series served to fill in the back story on what the robots are doing on Earth in a more full and complete way than the film can, something that shouldn’t surprise me but for some reason does. They also published the movie’s official comic adaptation.
There was the usual slew of children’s books produced ranging from beginning reader to sticker books to short adapted versions of the movie’s story.
Clothing retailer Steve & Barry’s played the trailer in stores and created a line of adult-friendly t-shirts sporting, again, classic versions of the characters.
Sony ran a promotion for the movie, including a behind-the-scenes look at the creation of the movie’s official game, on their Playstation site.
Hasbro created a print ad featuring the classic version of Optimus Prime that managed to accomplish 1) Promoting newspaper reading and 2) Promoting the rerelease of the original animated movie on DVD (see the bottom headline on the paper).
Word of Mouth
Let’s get the unpleasantness out of the way right off the bat, shall we?
There was an incident that occurred back in July of last year involving John Campea, proprietor of the always informative and excellent The Movie Blog. John posted some spy photos of the robots in production. He was asked by Paramount to take the pictures down and was in the process of confirming that they really wanted them removed since, as he told them, they were acting as great promotional pieces for the movie. John complied. He then awoke to find his site had been taken down completely by his hosting provider. Seems that provider had received a note from Paramount’s legal team that there were still pictures on the site, pictures that hadn’t been referenced in any earlier communications.
Upon realizing Paramount had taken such draconian actions John, someone who was thrilled about the movie and was obviously sharing his excitement with his readers, decided that Transformers coverage on TMB was done, a boycott I added my own humble power to. Had Paramount kept going along these lines it could have been disastrous for Transformers and the studio as a whole considering how bad this made it look through the perspective of social media relations.
Luckily it all turned out well. A representative from Paramount contacted John and let him know this was all a misunderstanding and the misguided actions of a few jittery folks in the legal department. They apologized and made it clear they were thrilled he was looking forward to the movie and would look forward to working with him as opposed to against him in the future. And work with him they did, inviting him out for a visit to the set a couple of months after all this took place.
One of the biggest things the studio did to get fans excited about the movie pretty early in the campaign was to create a contest called Make Prime Speak. Fans were able to submit what they thought was an appropriate line of dialogue, with a winning submission chosen and the winning line being added to the movie. This was a great tactic to get the whole community engaged in a CGC-type contest that would then hopefully pay off in people being just that much more interested in the movie itself.
The studio targeted some select webmasters to receive a whole box full of goodies like toys and more in a nice effort to get them to talk about what they got, which would then result in people like me talking about that, resulting in lots of secondary word-of-mouth explosions.
But let’s face it. The entire campaign was about word-of-mouth. Each component was released with the hope and expectation that people would buzz about it and people did just that. This is all one huge word-of-mouth effort.
Whew! That was quite a haul, wasn’t it? I don’t even know how to wrap this up. Like Spider-Man 3 it’s simply too huge to provide any sort of perspective on. The campaign is built around nostalgia every bit as much as it’s built around huge f*****g robots and the sheer scope makes it impossible to analyze on an overall basis, so let me simply say it like this:
The trailers were good. The posters were middling and possibly a bit boring. The website strategy is hard to figure out and actually a little frustrating. The product placement is absolutely mind-numbing in its scale. The advertising was broad and hard to miss. The word of mouth was effective in making sure people got to talking about the flick.
It’s a good campaign, but that’s like saying the Statue of Liberty is a nice piece of sculpture. It’s so monumentally larger than what it might be measured against that comparisons are meaningless. But I’m excited to see the movie, as are many many others, which I guess is the ultimate gauge of success.