Movie Marketing Madness: The Incredible Hulk

Let me go ahead and get this out of the way because this is the issue that colors just about everything about the campaign for The Incredible Hulk: I like the Ang Lee movie. I think, when judged on its own, it’s a decent movie that has some interesting stuff going on as it explores the father/son issues going on between Bruce Banner and his dysfunctional family. Yeah, it reworks the origin story and yeah it features a genetically mutated poodle, but overall I like it, especially the graphic design of the comic book panels that expand and contract and in and out of the frame.

I wanted to mention that right off the bat because its Lee’s 2003 film and the critical and audience reaction to it that is prompting Universal to revisit the character with a film that’s part sequel and part reboot.

Lee’s movie was seen as not being enough of an action movie and as being too bogged down in paternal angst. So this new incarnation is being positioned as much more action-oriented, with a more straight-ahead comic book feel, as well as bearing more resemblance to the iconic television show that starred Bill Bixby and Lou Ferigno as the two halves of the gamma-irradiated coin.

This time around it’s Edward Norton as Bruce Banner and, just as in Lee’s movie, a collection of #4224-tinted pixels as the Hulk. All the comic characters are back that are associated with the franchise, including Gen. Thunderbolt Ross (William Hurt) and his daughter/Banner’s love interest Betty Ross (Liv Tyler). This time the Hulk goes up against not his own pathos but an actual super-villain, The Abomination (whose alter ego is played by Tim Roth).

There are actually two superheroes that you’ll be hearing about in this look at the Hulk’s campaign. In addition to the star of the movie himself we’ll also be talking about Iron Man a little bit. Since Iron Man came out just over a month before Hulk, and since these are the first two movies being produced by Marvel Studios as a stand-alone production house, there were a lot of opportunities for cross-seeding the audience with buzz for Hulk while they were being exposed to Iron Man’s campaign.

Part of this – a large part of this – is because Iron Man became the movie to beat of the early summer and was generating some tremendous buzz. So the tying together of the movies was an attempt to associate Hulk with what was being anticipated as a surefire, crowd-pleasing hit. That would hopefully bring in more of the audience and even possibly overcome some of the “well is it going to be better than the 2003 film” questions that were out there.

That’s why Marvel seemed to encourage the rumors circulating that Robert Downey Jr. would appear as Tony Stark in The Incredible Hulk, rumors that were later confirmed when Marvel showed off footage of Downey in the movie at one of the Comic-Con shows. All of this, as we now know, is part of Marvel’s laying the groundwork for The Avengers film that is scheduled for 2011.

So now that we know all that, let’s look at how the Hulk’s second coming is being marketed.

The Posters

While there were a handful of teaser images released there is, in fact, only one poster that appears to have been created for the movie.

It is, though, a very cool poster. It places the emphasis on the issue of duality that haunts the character of Bruce Banner with Banner walking away from his Hulk persona that towers over him and is glowering over its shoulder at him. It’s immediately evocative of the TV show since the image of Banner with a traveling bag over his shoulder and eyes cast down on the road before him is how just about every episode of that show ended as he left whatever town he was in after he had saved whatever outcast needed saving.

The background, filled with tanks and helicopters and other signs of a military presence definitely play up the notion that there will be a throw-down between the Hulk and the army at some point. Considering the role the military plays in the character’s comic book mythos that’s a good way to show that that particular point has been carried over. It’s also meant to highlight the fact that this Hulk movie is going to be more action-packed than the earlier film, regardless of the struggles that Banner’s brooding on the one-sheet might convey.

The Trailers

The first trailer that was released by Universal appeared just a few short months before the movie’s release. It acts very much like a teaser – especially at first – but isn’t really by the end.

It starts out with Bruce explaining to a friend that he has some pretty serious and abnormal psychological issues he has to deal with. After that we get kind of a hodgepodge of scenes of a military operation, some scenes in a lab and other shots of more or less all the characters. The last half of it is primarily made up of the fight between the Abomination and the Hulk, with most of the shots actually being of the Abomination and the Hulk not really showing up until the last quarter of the spot’s running time, something I thought was a little odd at the time.

It certainly strikes an action-oriented tone, setting up at least the broad strokes of most of the conflicts and relationships that will drive the various plot points of the movie.

Surprisingly – I didn’t think there would be enough time – there was indeed a second trailer. This one goes a little deeper into some of those character relationships. We’re first shown Banner living in some South American country and searching for a cure to what ails him. That search is disrupted when some special forces operatives barge in on him on Gen. Ross’s orders. The team is led by Tim Ross, who plays Neil Blonsky and it’s his story this trailer follows as much as Banner’s. Blonsky is shown volunteering for whatever Ross might be doing to bag the Hulk after he gets kicked by the emerald giant. We eventually see Blonsky becoming the Abomination and squaring off once and for all against the Hulk.

In between all that we get a lot of good scenes of Banner transforming into his alter-ego when the military tries to capture him, an operation that goes badly when that change happens. It’s the best and clearest shot of the Hulk in the two trailers and comes in a series of scenes that also serve to deepen the emotional connection between Banner and Betty Ross.

The trailer is also notable for the music that’s used at the end. If you recognize it that’s because it’s the TV show’s iconic theme music, something that reinforces the connection between this movie and that show, something Universal is obviously hoping to play up as much as possible.

Universal would later tout that this trailer set a record for online views for any of the studio’s films.

This one works a tad bit better than the first, though the two function at about the same level. I think it’s the extended look at the Hulk himself that pushes the second trailer into the lead. This is, after all, his movie and it’s good to see him getting plenty of screen time in his own trailer. But the two function as two halves of the same equation and one is definitely weaker without the other.

There was also a defacto third trailer that was released via a promotional DVD available at Best Buy beginning a couple weeks before the movie came out. This trailer drew an even straighter line between the TV show and the movie, with narration and footage that almost exactly recreated the opening to the show. Like that, the narrator introduces Bruce Banner and explains what’s going on – that he’s searching for a cure to something – followed by the experiment Banner subjects himself to going wrong and resulting in him Hulking out.

This one certainly ramped up the nostalgia factor, but doesn’t work – at least not for me – as well as it was designed to. That’s largely because the images we’re shown are incongruous to the narration, not in overall tone but in actual execution. They’re scenes we’ve seen before and so attempting to associate them with something fondly remembered creates a sort of disconnect mentally. I certainly get what they were going for but I think it just doesn’t quite reach the mark it should.

Online

The first thing you see when you load the movie’s official website is a countdown at the top that clicks down the time to the movie’s release. Further down the main page you also will be able to see that you can watch the trailer and grab a widget for your own blog or social network that contains video and pictures from the movie.

I’ll just say this quickly – I had the widget here on MMM for a while but took it off because it autoplayed the trailer with the sound on. I have no problem with autoplay video as long as it’s silent. But I got more emails about that than just about anything else I’ve done here so eventually took it down.

Anyway, you’ll also see links to play the “Hulk Smash 2.0″ side-scrolling destruction game along the lines of Rampage that’s actually kind of fun and preview the console game that’s tied to the movie.

Entering the site first brings up a super-slick video intro. You can access the site’s content via the “Navigate” cloud-looking thing at the bottom but there’s also a Quick Menu option in the upper left corner that is a little easier to use so let’s work off that.

The first stop is “Story,” which contains a pretty good Story synopsis that doesn’t devolve into corporate fluffery but instead sticks with actually describing the movie’s plot. This is also where you’ll find Cast and Filmmakers information that covers all the folks you see in important parts on either side of the camera.

Next up is “Characters” which gives a history and brief description of the major characters in the film set against a flashy background of clips featuring that character. While the text on the site is brief there is a “Click here for full bio” link that, interestingly, takes you to the Marvel.com Universe bio of that character, which is a cool way for Marvel to get some visitors and provide a more in-depth glimpse at their mythology and history in the comics.

“Video” is among the better-stocked such sections I’ve come across recently. All three trailers (the third one was something I had not seen elsewhere – not all that interesting and pretty short), a Behind the Scenes video, all six TV spots and a handful of clips from the movie are all there. This is how to do a Videos section and I hope more sites are this tricked out in this regard.

There are about 20, give or take, photos in “Gallery,” most of which are straight from the trailers or which have been previously released online. “Downloads” just has some Wallpapers and a bunch of AIM icons. Finally there are links there for the “Widget” and the “Hulk Smash Game” as well as to all the “Partners” on the movie.

Down in the lower left hand corner is something called “Hulk Connect” that’s kind of interesting. It’s essentially a webring based around the movie that has links to some of the related sites, like to the Hulu channel for the first season of the TV show, which is what I’ll being for a while now. You can also submit your own site for inclusion. I like this a lot since it acts as a good repository for all web-based material surrounding the movie, something that’s sorely lacking on most sites.

The main feature on the movie’s Facebook fan page is that once you became a fan you were entered to win a pair of the new Hulk Smash Hands toys, which made it totally worth it for me. There’s also the usual offerings like photo albums and videos like trailers and TV spots. That was not, though, the extent of Universal’s foray into Facebook territory. They also created a sponsored Hulk trivia quiz in conjunction with Flixter that used the latter’s Movie’s application. Finally, there’s a separate fan page for a graffiti art contest – basically fan-submitted art creations – that awarded Fandango or Amazon gift certificates as well as movie-related swag.

There was a MySpace page too that actually went a bit beyond the usual offerings. Yeah, there were standard things like photo gallerys and downloads and such, but there’s also a call for people to submit pictures of themselves doing their best Hulk impressions in an effort to win some Hulk Smash Hands. There’s even a video from last year’s Comic-Con of people wearing the Hands and doing their best roaring.

Advertising and Cross-Promotions

Let me start off by talking briefly about something that was not a part of the movie’s campaign. Universal did not advertise the movie during the 2008 Super Bowl, something it was at least rumored to be pondering until shortly before the game. This is notable primarily because the studio did advertise the Ang Lee film during the 203 Super Bowl, a commercial that was roundly criticized for featuring a Hulk that looked like a bulked-up Gumby and really began the negative word-of-mouth that surrounded the film. The studio eventually said the spot featured incomplete computer effects.

I also need to state upfront my belief that the best part of a new Hulk movie being made is the fact that we get a new edition of Hulk Hands toys. This alone justifies whatever the production budget was since, in my view, these may be the Best Toys Ever. Universal was even good enough to shoot me a pair of these, which became an instant hit in my house.

In terms of pure advertising there was quite a bit going on. More than six TV spots were created, each one taking a little bit different take on different themes explored in the movie. For instance there’s one that focuses on Banner trying to explain to Betty what the change he undergoes is like, one that definitely associates the Hulk character with Marvel and others that take different tacts. There was even this one, which confirmed to the mass audience what geeks and online followers of movie news had known for a while, that Tony Stark does indeed appear in the movie.

There was also a bit of outdoor advertising done. I didn’t see so much of it here in the Chicago area, but pictures were put up on Marvel’s site of huge billboards that were erected in New York and Los Angeles for the movie as well as smaller displays elsewhere.

The trailer got mixed in with some behind-the-scenes interviews with the movie’s cast and crew for a segment of National CineMedia’s FirstLook pre-show block of programming. Theater-goers heading to their local cineplex to see Iron Man were exposed to life-size statues of the Hulk in hundreds of theaters across the country. In what was a very cool move they also created a Flickr pool for people to submit their photos of those statues to. I think it’s cool because it got people to interact more closely with the movie’s brand and spread the word themselves that these photos were out there. It also gave Marvel/Universal an idea of how widespread these statues were being seen and photographed.

The association Marvel was building between The Incredible Hulk and Iron Man was extended to an advertising campaign that was implemented by Apptera and involved MovieTickets.com. People calling the service for showtimes and locations for Iron Man were delivered a message saying, “Like Tony Stark? See more of him in ‘Incredible Hulk’ in theaters on June 13. Press 1 to get a text message reminder…”. If people opted-in were then sent an SMS reminder that Hulk was about to be released in the days just before it hit. The campaign had an opt-in rate of about three percent, which is actually pretty good.

Universal was one of the first brand advertisers to sign on to instant-messaging platform Meebo’s testing of new ad formats. One of those new offerings, a leaderboard unit that could include video that people can easily share with friends, was used to run the trailer for The Incredible Hulk.

Former Hulk Lou Ferrigno also did his part to continue his association with the character as well as promote the new movie by appearing on an episode of NBC’s “American Gladiators that aired June 9th. The episode also featured a new 60-second clip from the movie and the set of the show was completely redesigned to be Hulk-centric, with green water, lighting and more. 1,000 audience members were even given Hulk Hands toys and some of the Gladiators actually had to fight with Hulk Hands on.

Also giving some in-episode time to promote the movie was “American Chopper.” An episode of the show was devoted to building a Hulk-themed motorcycle and also included plenty of footage from the movie as well as other brand integration.

The motorcycle that was built on the show was then auctioned off as part of a promotional deal with nutritional supplement maker EAS Myoplex, which is sold at GNC stores. Packaging of the supplement also featured Hulk branding.

Burger King used The Incredible Hulk as it’s third major movie tie-in of the summer, with the first being Iron Man and the second being Indiana Jones. The fast-food chain included the Jade Giant toys in its Kid’s Meals, six in all. It also created TV spots and in-store signage to support the promotion.

Struggling (let’s be honest) retail giant Kmart created a rather large-scale promotion for the movie. It ran the “Incredible Dad” program that featured movie-branded gift cards and MovieCash certificates. The micro-site that was created also featured a $5 off coupon for movie toys and also linked to Burger King’s site as another place to find toys. There were also wallpapers and trailers, including one for the Sega console game that was released. Kmart created its own TV spots, email blasts and in-store signage to support the promotion. It also offered mobile ringtones, wallpapers and screensavers.

Also following Shellhead with Purple Pants is 7-Eleven. The convenience store began offering a new Radiation Rush flavor that you could get in one of three lenticular “Incredible Gulp” cups and drink through straws that featured one of three different mini action-figures attached to them. The store’s site for the promotion also featured a handful of PC wallpapers to download and the movie’s trailer people could watch. In-store there was a huge standee of The Hulk as well as Hulk-themed sandwiches and bakery goods that bore the likeness of the Hulk.

One of the more unique promotions, Norton Antivirus launched a co-branded campaign that played up not the fact that it shares a name with the lead actor in the film but the idea of “smashing” viruses and how it offers ultimate protection. The site from the company featured the movie’s trailer as well as a sweepstakes to win an Aquos LCD TV, an Epiphone guitar that features a Hulk-centric paint scheme or movie tickets. Norton also did a lot of advertising for the promotion, especially via RSS management firm FeedBurner. I saw ads like this pop up quite a bit in my daily reading in the month or so before the movie’s release.

Popular video site MetaCafe got with the action by creating a trailer mashup tool. Visitors were given a selection of video snippets, special effects and music clips to choose from that they could then arrange in their own way. Others could then view and vote on the new creations.

Finally, Airheads created a special Hulk Out flavor of its candy and offered wallpapers on its site and Sargento created specially marked packages that let people enter to win a trip to Universal Studios or copies of the Sega video game.

The tie-in commercials produced by the promotional partners and run during children’s programming raised the antenna of advocacy groups that seek to limite kid’s commercial exposure. The problem – and The Incredible Hulk is just the latest movie in a string – is that the movie is rated PG-13 and the target audience for some of these shows is sometimes four years old and younger. While there’s nothing against the rules per se about advertising for fast food or candy during these shows, the more mature-oriented rating of the movie raises the question of the appropriateness of these ads. Most of the damage, though, is likely to come in the court of public opinion as opposed to any actual sanctions since no actual rules regarding advertising best-practices appear to have been violated by these ads.

Media

Much like Iron Man before it, The Incredible Hulk has been marketed in large part through the release of a series of clips from the movie to various sites in the last couple months before release. IO9 has a good round-up of five of those clips, most of which feature extended scenes that we were first teased in one or both of the trailers.

Cartoon Network must have remembered they owned the 90’s cartoon series starring the Hulk since it planned a mini-marathon of episodes just before the release. And UGO created a Top 11 Guide to Rage that featured Banner/Hulk prominently.

Marvel.com also engaged in the same sort of coverage highlighting for the Emerald Avenger it did for the Golden Avenger, putting up items like this one that feature quotes and reactions to the movie’s marketing and buzz from around the internet. That one, in the interest of full disclosure and maximum self-promotion, features a quote and a link from/to yours truly as well.

All of those stories, including features on the best comics, the history of the television show and the various incarnations of the Hulk, were part of what it dubbed Hulk Month, which is exactly the same thing it did for Iron Man in April as they counted down to that movie.

Overall

The LA Times published an article a while ago about the potential stumbling blocks in the way of Universal’s relaunch of the franchise.

While most of the story is the by-now-familiar re-hashing of how this movie is going to differ from Ang Lee’s 2003 version (which I still contend gets more than it’s share of undeserved bashing) by being more heroic and romantic, there’s also some discussion of the movie’s marketing campaign.

Specifically, it addresses the fact that the marketing campaign for the movie took so long to get off the ground, and has been so sporadic, that the conversation online has been dominated by skeptical bloggers and others. But, as Universal execs state, the delay was in part so they didn’t make the same mistakes they made the last time and release unfinished material in the pursuit of getting something out there.

I’ll say here exactly what I said to someone at Universal I spoke to them: This campaign was best when it actually happened. What I mean by that is that the release of campaign materials seemed to be slow, with large gaps in between that had the unfortunate effect of ceding word-of-mouth time to other movies. But then, when stuff was released, my enthusiasm went right back up to really wanting to see the movie.

The posters, trailers and website are all very cool and, importantly, convey a consistent brand image that results in the audience getting the same reinforced message time and time again. That, couppled with the positive associative buzz it enjoyed alongside Iron Man, have this being a strong entry in the Summer of Superheroes ™. It’s a strong campaign that reinforces the superhero-nature of this film and makes sure it’s seen as different than its predecessor I think, just by virutue of the fact that it tries so darn hard, it ranks among the strongest I’ve seen from a marketing point of view in a while.

PICKING UP THE SPARE

  • 6/11/08: Director Louis Leterrier says some version of the movie’s DVD release will have about 70 minutes of cut footage, including the much-buzzed about mysterious appearance of Captain America in some way, shape or form.
  • 6/11/08: Dan Light also let me know on Twitter that his firm created Hulkerizer and HulkYourSiteOut as part of the movie’s U.K. campaign, both of which are extremely cool.
  • 6/18/08: The Thursday before the movie’s opening Marvel’s Joe Quesada and other execs from the company rang the bell at the New York Stock Exchange, with everyone appearing on the platform wearing Hulk Smash Hands just to complete the effect.
  • 6/18/08: Anne Thompson has a great round-up of the story behind the clashes (both real and otherwise) between Marvel/Universal and Hulk star Edward Norton. When it comes to the marketing of the pic she says the two parties agreed it would be best to keep Norton off the publicity circuit so as not to put the attention on him and keep it focused on the movie itself.
  • 6/25/08: David Goetzi at MediaPost reviews the effectiveness of The Incredible Hulk’s takeover of an episode of “American Gladiators.” The promotion included outfitting some of the Gladiators with Hulk Smash Hands, an appearance by former Hulk Lou Ferrigno and an extended trailer at the end of the show, all of which added up to a great, if slightly tongue-in-cheek bit of marketing for the movie.
  • 6/25/08: To promote the movie’s opening in Spain, ol’ greenskin took over the front page of MSN Spain with a full rich-media placement on June 20th only that included scenes from the movie in the background and a full trailer that played on the page.
  • 6/25/08: You can also see at Newsarama an example of the “If you liked the movie, you’ll love the comics” ads Marvel was running for the Hulk character online around the movie’s release.
  • 7/16/08: The success of the new movie version of the Hulk has been debated back and forth since its release, with the last word on the matter seeming to be that it just didn’t do well enough to warrant a franchise. Universal continues to say it’s happy with the movie’s box-office, and the lighter, more action-oriented tone of the movie makes it more open to sequels, but the lack of a sequel that’s been greenlighted already kind of speaks volumes.
  • 8/7/08: One of the many things the campaigns for these two movies had in common was that they both had Slurpee-based promotions at 7-Eleven. That focus on big-name promotions is part of an overall re-positioning of the Slurpee at the convenience store chain that’s been spear-headed by Stephanie Hoppe, who hopes to make the brand more relevant to the teenage males of the population. In addition to movies, 7-Eleven has been running Slurpee promotions around video games and other things that have appeal to that age group.
  • 10/2/08: Also getting help with his DVD debut is The Incredible Hulk. Artwork for the film is being included on packaging of Hostess snacks. There’s also a contest that’s being run to encourage people to give out Hulk-themed Hostess products as Halloween treats.