Movie Marketing Madness: Forgetting Sarah Marshall

The first chinks are beginning to appear in Judd Apatow’s seeming invincibility. After the one-two punch of Knocked Up, which was a surprise hit in 2007 and Superbad, which won acclaims for being a foul-mouthed but heartwarming tale of teenaged life, he was seen as capable of doing no wrong. He was even masterful online, with a series of short videos featuring his trademark humor being handled with ease by his regular troupe of actors.

But then Drillbit Taylor hit. Or, more accurately, it didn’t.

Let’s not write the Apatow obituary quite yet, though. He’s still got a couple of movies he’s produced that look pretty good and may cement a reputation as a solid comedy mind if not the second coming of Lenny Bruce. One of those is Pineapple Express, the stoners-on-the-run flick starring Knocked Up’s Seth Rogen and James Franco.

The other is the movie that brings us here today, Forgetting Sarah Marshall. The story runs thusly: Guy gets dumped by his TV star girlfriend, who’s likely already being bedded by an oversexed Eurotrash deuchebag. To get over said dumping he decides to take a vacation. Unfortunately for him, but fortunately for us the viewer, his choice of locations is the same as his ex-girlfriend and said oversexed Eurotrash douchebag.

The Poster

There was only really one poster created for Sarah Marshall, which is a little surprising. It featured star Jason Seigel in Hawaiian shirt moping (hopefully hilariously in the eyes of the viewer) behind a big broken heart. So we’ve got the basic plot setup as well as hints as to the location of most of the movie’s action, a combination that makes for a pretty good poster.

The only problem I really have with the print campaign here is that there are so many other people in the movie that not giving them their due seems a little off. At least something that included Kristen Bell (“Veronica Mars”), who plays the titular character would have been a good addition. She’s not only got a good-sized fan base but she’s not exactly ugly and putting her somewhere, either fully-clothed or in the bikini she sports in the trailer, would have served to attract those VM fans as well as guys of just about every demographic.

The Trailers

The one primary trailer, thankfully, follows the basic story arc the movie entire does, at least presumably. It begins with the break-up and progresses through the Peter’s attempts to get over Sarah by bedding someone else (resulting in a very funny-looking trip to his apparently life-long doctor) and then to Hawaii, where the two exes once again encounter each other. That’s where we stay for the remainder of the trailer, as they seem incapable of not winding up in the same place over and over again in one awkward situation after another. It also hints at the relationship that will help poor Peter finally move past Sarah.

So it does a good job of setting the movie up but it’s also pretty funny in a way that even holds up to repeat viewings. It’s a kind of humor that’s mainly derived from how incredibly painful certain relationships and situations can be and therefore works by creating not only laughs but empathy in the audience. Sure, there’s a joke about blow-jobs at the end, but it’s an intelligent joke about a blow-job and that’s all I’m really asking for.

There was also a red-band trailer that was released, an obvious move for an R-rated comedy nowadays as the studio tries to bring in guys who are going to be more attracted to the movie if they’re shown to a fuller extent the sexy and crude comedy it contains. It followed the same structure as the first trailer but, obviously, contained a little more coarse language and a few more scenes of some sexy happenings.

Online

The main page of the official website at first appears to be kind of a mess, but the content sorts itself out after a minute or so. Much of the initial confusion is caused by the kind of patched-together look of the site, with lots of different graphics and fonts competing for attention. Let’s just move clockwise to cover everything.

First things first though: Have your pop-up blocker disabled since just about everything here is a pop-up.

Our first stop is the broken heart labeled “Tips to get over being dumped.” That contains two sections, one for all audiences that one that’s only for those over 18. It’s basically a bunch of film clips that contain wisdom of some sort from one of the characters on how to get over, well, being dumped.

Moving over to the right you have Peter’s Blog (addressed in its own section below) followed by SarahMarshallFan, a fake fan site/blog devoted to the actress portrayed by Bell in the movie. It’s actually not too bad, right down to taking stills from other Kristen Bell movies and assigning other names to them and making them part of Marshall’s filmography. But it’s got one problem, which I’ll address, again, below.

There’s also a MySpace page for the rebound guy, the aforementioned oversexed Eurotrash douchebag. Finally, in a nice bit of corporate synergy, NBC has created a page for the “Crime Scene” show that Marshall is supposed to be the star of. But it to has a major problem.

So let’s enter the site.

There’s little that’s remarkable about the site’s actual content other than the repeated prompts to view restricted, 18+-only footage, unfortunately. The first thing you see is a line-up of the major characters. Click one of them and you get a brief bit of audio from them. Probably could have been enhanced with some video, but that’s just my opinion.

Moving down to the options menu, you get the standard fare in each section. “About” contains a Story synopsis, Cast and Crew bios and some pretty decent Production Notes. “Video” has the Trailer, four TV spots, a few Clips and, again, the red-band trailer to view. You’ll find Buddy Icons, a Screensaver and Wallpapers under “Downloads.” Next is the Gallery, which by my count has about 20 or so stills from the movie.

There’s also something there called “Make Your Own Tabloid.” I’m not sure what this is since it’s still labeled as “Coming Soon.”

“I’m So Over You…”

Let’s address this as it’s own section. Beginning a couple months before the movie’s release there begin appearing a series of outdoor posters and ads proclaiming “I’m so over you Sarah Marshall” or declaring “You do look fat in those jeans, Sarah Marshall.” There were a couple other variations as well.

The posters pointed to the URL IHateSarahMarshall.com, a blog setup by Peter, the dumped boyfriend. There he was chronicling his displeasure with his ex and how he was just a shell of a human being since she left. The site included Flickr photos and YouTube videos that hammered that point home in a way that text just can’t.

I voiced my displeasure with this aspect of the campaign before but let me make clear what my biggest problem with it is. It’s not actually that it violated about seven social media best practices. It’s not that it’s more than a little offensive to women (especially real women who share the title character’s name).

No, my biggest problem is that it violates the rule that fiction and non-fiction should never touch.

I like the alternate reality executions I mentioned earlier like the fake NBC show page and the fan sites and such. But these ads purported tried to exist in the real and fake world simultaneously. At the bottom of the ads there appeared the Universal Pictures logo and an MPAA rating, both of which just destroy the suspension of disbelief this part of the campaign is trying to create. Just seconds after looking at the posters and wondering what this is all about the viewer is pulled right out of his or her imagination with the realization that it’s just a movie.

It’s almost better to not even try something like this when you’re going to be held to industry standards and guidelines like this. And the studio knows that. If you look at the pictures Jason posts on his blog about how he bought the ads with his own money (snarf) you’ll notice that the rating and studio logo have been conspicuously spray-painted over. They’re aware that showing that ruins the moment. That’s my biggest problem.

But also let’s look at what people are likely to do after seeing the posters. Assuming they were walking/driving when they saw them and couldn’t remember the URL that was on the poster (it’s in pretty small type and not remembering URLs is a pervasive problem for print, radio and every other form of media advertising) they probably went and hit Google with a search for “sarah marshall.” Such a search brings back all the movie information, including a paid search ad pointing to Universal’s official site. But the fake blog isn’t there, so once again people are sucked out of the experience and presented with a movie ad.

This continued touching of the fake stuff and the real movie campaign is the problem I cited above with the various components of the online campaign. On each of these there are big banners or boxes enticing us to watch the movie’s trailer, specifically the red-band version.

I just don’t think that, if you’re going to try and be clever by launching fake blogs and show sites and such, you should ruin the user experience with an overt ad for the movie. It’s heavy-handed and doesn’t work. Have faith in the audience and try to create a fun environment. It’ll sort itself out, and people are more likely to pass on what they’ve “discovered” in a more genuine way without the overt ad sullying their experience by making it obvious they’re being asked to participate in a marketing effort.

LATER NOTE: I had the opportunity to speak with someone familiar with the campaign. They explained to me that the “I’m so over you…” tactic was born of the difficulty of having kind of an awkward title to work with, not to mention one that wasn’t going to be familiar to viewers. They also said the campaign was never meant to be “viral” but instead the studio was counting on people seeing it and hoping they would hit their search engines and find information on the movie.

As far as the ratings block on the posters, that apparently was a requirement of the vendor they were working with and I can completely understand that.

They also said both Peter Seigal and the guy who plays the rocker Lothario have been invaluable as part of the creation of the blogs and MySpace pages for their characters. Seigal has apparently been involved greatly in creating video and more for his character’s site.

Speaking of that site, it was created again because the movie needed a bigger online footprint and this was one way to do that. I’m not going to spoil how it relates to the movie, but that was explained a bit as well.

While I still have some issues with how this was executed I do get what they were going for and my problems with it are minimized at least a little. I appreciate the 15 minutes that person spent on the phone addressing my previous concerns and it has changed my perspective on the campaign a bit.

Advertising and Cross-Promotion

Ads for Forgetting Sarah Marshall were – and I’m only slightly exaggerating here – everywhere on the Internet in the final three weeks before the movie’s release. I don’t know if there was some behavioral targeting going on or what, but I think about 75 percent of the sites I visited in that period had an FSM ad on them.

There were some TV spots run as well (of course, since they’re on the official site) but I didn’t personally see more than a handful. But I don’t watch much TV, so that could explain a lot of that.

And the “I’m so over you…” posters were all over the place outdoors. I saw them on bus shelters, on the sides of CTA buses, on billboards and a slew of other spots as well. What I didn’t see where any actual ads for the movie. That’s a big gamble, it seems to me, to take that people are going to be activated enough to go online and find the blog whose link appears on the poster – or run a general search of some sort – and not do any straight outdoor advertising. Again, I’m basing this solely off my experience so someone correct me if I’m wrong on that. Perhaps Universal was thinking the name association from the other advertising it was doing in conjunction with the posters would be enough. I’m not so sure.

Overall

Normally when a campaign that I otherwise really like such as this one fails on just one front I’m still willing to give it a good thumbs-up. If the trailer, poster and ads are strong I’ll give less weight in the overall judgment to, say, a weak online presence.

I’m going to do just that with Forgetting Sarah Marshall despite the fact that the one weak component – the advertising – was so ubiquitous as to be a campaign unto itself.

This is, on measure, a very good campaign. The poster and trailers and online efforts – at least the real ones – are very good (at least above average) and sell the movie quite well to the intended audience. I won’t rehash my problems with the ad campaign here since, despite their ever presence, they don’t impact the quality of the rest of the campaign too much, and certainly not detrimentally.

So consider this my opinion that the Forgetting Sarah Marshall campaign is a good effort by Universal for a mid-spring comedy.

PICKING UP THE SPARE

  • 6/18/08: Director Judd Apatow was honored as a “Visionary” at The Hollywood Reporter’s Key Art Awards. You can read an interview with Apatow that includes his thoughts on “viral” marketing, a story I was intially to be featured in until the powerful Apatow pushed me out, here. You can also watch footage of FSM star Jason Segel opining on his exclusion from the movie’s campaign here.