I think the first time I heard rumors of a big-screen version of “The Simpsons” being produced was around 1992 or so. It was probably something I read in Entertainment Weekly, since it was my main source of entertainment news in the days before the Internet. The show had been on the air for around three seasons and was really hitting its stride, both creatively and in terms of popularity. It was, by that point, no longer just something the wise-asses enjoyed but had become family viewing material.
Rumors came and went. People swore it was in production but nothing ever came of it. By around 2000 I think I had actually given up on a movie actually happening. The show, while still better than 90 percent of what was on TV, had begun a creative slide from its incredible heights and I figured the moment had passed. Each new season of the show seemed like it happened less because the creators were incredibly enthused and energized and more like Fox was unwilling to let it go and was holding family members hostage to keep it going. “The Simpsons,” after all, had pretty much been the sole show to push Fox into being a full-fledged network. So, understandably, they didn’t want to lose it. But, as Jeff Goldblum told us in Jurassic Park, just because you can do something doesn’t necessarily mean you should.
All that is to say is that The Simpsons Movie, which hits screens Friday, is probably arriving at least a decade after it really should have. That means the marketing campaign, a no-brainer had the movie come out in 1995, is now a bit more difficult an affair. The shows fans are now older, probably with a mortgage and kids. And the younger crowd – those under 25 – wasn’t watching the show when it was peaking because they were still going to bed at 7PM because they had grade school the next day.
Plus there’s the fact that The Simpsons is now ubiquitous in its media reach. Repeats of the show are in syndication practically around the clock and the first nine or ten seasons are on DVD, meaning you can get your Simpsons fix just about on demand. So not only does the movie’s campaign have to break through the clutter of the rest of the media world but it has to break through the noise of the franchise itself as well. Let’s take a look at how they did with this campaign, something Fox pulled out all the corporate components for.
The first teaser poster appeared back in December and introduced us to what, at the time, appeared to just be a teaser conceit but which would turn out to be the long-term title treatment for the movie. Homer’s yellow arm was just reaching up and plucking the pink donut that made up the “o” in “Movie” from its spot. Incredibly original? No, not really but it didn’t need to be. What it needed to do was tell fans that the movie was coming and that it wouldn’t stray too far from the show that they had been enjoying for 18 years now – or whenever they abandoned the show.
It wasn’t until May that we got new printed material in the form of six character posters. Each member of the family got their own, plus one that featured both Homer and Bart in a scene pulled straight from the second trailer. That was followed a month later with one that had the whole family atop a blazing building.
The point I made when that last one was released still stands: There was little aside from the title treatment that was unique to the movie about the posters. They were, for all intents and purposes, just Simpsons posters, the likes of which you’ve been able to buy for 17 years now. That’s the problem with such a long-running franchise like this. It’s very hard to come up with something that doesn’t seem generic when you’re trying to market something that’s supposed to be new and exciting. The posters weren’t bad, but the lack of more that specifically pegged them to the movie’s promotional efforts made them less than exciting.
The final theatrical poster did not do much to dispel that feeling, again just showing what amounts to a generic picture of Homer munching on the pink donut from the title. It does, I suppose, provide a nice bookend when you compare it to the teaser poster but you really have to work to make that connection. Thinking about it like that makes it actually much more appealing than it might be otherwise, when it’s just viewed as a Spencer’s Gifts clearance item poster.
The first teaser trailer appeared over a year before what would become the movie’s release date, back in March of 2006. This was, in retrospect, the Simpsons at their best in just a few short seconds, setting audience expectations, dashing them while the creators laughed and skewering pop culture all in one fell swoop. The spot’s voiceover spoke of a hero who would appear among us as the camera pulled out to reveal the Superman logo.
When the pullback was complete it simply showed Homer sitting in a Superman shirt and his underwear, admitting he didn’t know what he was supposed to say. After the narrator announced the release date he then complained they better get to work.
The reason this particular trailer worked so well was that it came right in the middle of the campaign for Superman Returns. So using that symbol as part of the tease was a great move that really tapped into something timely, a staple of the Simpsons franchise.
(Brief digression: This also has the distinction of being, I think, the first YouTube video I ever embedded on MMM. It was right around the time YouTube was breaking into the second tier of adopters and it was really cool to be able to do that.)
We had to wait eight months for a new trailer to debut, this time appearing (appropriately) within an episode of the TV show. It starts off with a gag that many said was done before by other animated films, showing a beautiful computer-graphic setting before highlighting The Simpsons as a movie that dared “to be ugly.” After Moe kills a rabbit we got our first fleeting glance at the movie, with Homer powering a wrecking ball and declaring he would save his family. Being Homer that doesn’t turn out well and he winds up being swung on the ball between The Zesty Fork’s billboard, a bar called The Hard Place and a huge rock. Again, very funny stuff and very much in the vein of the franchise’s history.
The next trailer focused on selling us the epic scale of the movie. While I get that that’s a necessary element to differentiate it from the show, the thing that is primarily going to be bringing people in is the idea of seeing a really good episode of the show. So it’s story and character, along with humor that need to be focused on and unfortunately those two things get lost in the huge build-up of this trailer.
The final theatrical trailer, released in June, was the first one that really got into the movie having an actual plot. While it still contained more than a few gags, there was also some connective story tissue about Springfield being targeted for destruction and it being up to the Simpsons to save the day. It really got me excited about the movie again after a series of ho-hum efforts.
Before we get to the content that’s hidden in the map that makes up most of the main part of the official website let’s look at the menu that is across the bottom.
“About the Film” contains a one-paragraph Story synopsis of the film’s plot. “The Simpsons Family” is a brief backgrounder on the characters that, quite frankly, is a bit insulting. “Production Notes” is also way too brief for a movie that has this big a fan base and has been in production this long.
“Gallery” contains just about eight or nine still pictures, most of which are pulled from the various trailers. “Video” has all five trailers, including the ability to grab some code and put them on your MySpace page or other blog, as well as a link to download them to your iPod.
“Mobile” has Wallpapers, Ringtones and Screensavers for your mobile phone. There’s also a link to a dedicated mobile site from Jamba that has a good selection of Simpsons content not just from the movie but the entire run of the show. There’s also a link to sign up for The Yellow Plan, which lets you pay a monthly fee for access to mobile downloads and show videos. “Partners” is a remarkably incomplete list of the promotional partners for the movie. Included on the page are links to 7-Eleven, Harper Books, Xbox and JetBlue but that’s it.
Along the top of the site are tabs for three additional content areas. The first is to the Simpsons Avatar creator. This is the feature that everyone was buzzing about that lets you design your own Simpsons character. It’s kind of awesome and got a lot of people talking about it. People I follow on Twitter were even replacing their existing profile icons with these pictures they were so excited. You can see my handywork to the right if you forgot what that looked like from the first time I mentioned it.
Also there are three “Springfield Games.” These include Three Card Moe, which is just a Simpson-ized version of three card monty. More fun are the Ball of Death and Wrecking Ball games. The first has you navigating Homer, who’s riding a motorcycle, in a steel cage ball like the kind you’d see at a circus. You have to complete each level by running over various donuts, hot dogs or Squishees while not hitting bricks or other items that will send you flying off your motorcycle.
‘Wrecking Ball” isn’t that complicated in concept but can be addicting once you start playing it. You control Homer as he drives a wrecking ball toward a police van that’s holding the rest of his family and swing the ball to see how far you can send the van flying. It’s actually lifted from a scene in the second trailer (and film, I presume) and is quite fun to play.
If you go back to the map of Springfield that first greets you when you open the site you can get to some more stuff. Links to the games can be found on the billboard at the front of the page. If you mouse over various buildings on the map they’ll pop up and offer you the ability to click on them. But, as of a week before the movie’s opening day, only two of the five locations actually contained any content. The rest were all labeled as “coming soon”.
Let me say that again – A week before a release that 20th Century Fox is hoping will be one of the tentpoles of the summer 3/5 of the content on the main part of the site is still unreleased. I’d love to know what the due date for those deliverables was because either someone is wrong headed about when people are visiting the site or someone deserves to be fired. That’s a horrible, horrible oversight to make on a high-profile release like this. Just awful.
Let’s dispense with “Moe’s Tavern” first, which is easy. That’s because all you do is click on objects within the bar to access the same content that’s on the bottom toolbar menu. Really? They couldn’t think of something more interesting to put there? Really? The one location that does have original content is the “Aztec Theater.” Enter the theater and you’ll see the movie’s animated cast sitting there. Shine the flashlight being held by the usher on one of them and click and you get a one-sentence description of that character. Yay?
Honestly – and I say this as constructively as I possibly can – what the hell? Did Fox decide that the official website – supposedly the offical representation of the film’s marketing identity on the interwebs – just wasn’t important? How do you not trick this out with every conceivable thing you can think of in order to get fanboys as excited as possible?
Yeah, they created the avatar creator. AND WHAT ELSE? THought so.
Advertising and Cross-Promotions
Let’s address the advertising first. There was a bit of online advertising but it’s the TV spots that are most interesting. All of them were letterboxed and all featured the title treatment down in one of the lower corners of the screen. It struck me as I was watching it that those two things were the main differentiators the movie had so that people wouldn’t confuse it with the show. Most other movie’s TV spots are full-frame and only showed the title at the very end. But this movie needed to show how it differed from a product that was constantly in front of people’s faces. So it went with what it had. That’s great thinking on the part of whoever planned these spots.
While the cross-promotions for The Simpsons Movie have been, as the Hollywood Reporter reported, fairly low in sheer quantity they have been much more fully engaging. That’s a great move since, again, the movie really has to almost reinvent and reinvigorate the brand for both existing and new fans. Instead of creating a ton of partnerships that were all superficial, glancing blows the studio has worked to create more immersing deals that get people buzzing.
And buzz they have. The way some of these things has been so experiential and fun is the perfect hook to get the 30-something professionals – especially communications professionals – talking. Since I live most of my day in the world of public relations and advertising I’ve gotten to know a number of the guys who work in that industry and follow their blogs, Twitter feeds and what not. So I’ve seen them talking about some of the executions below with a vigor they otherwise reserved for the iPhone. Just the fact that so many people were showing off the avatar they created on the official website should show you how much they felt compelled to dive in and have some fun with the brand. Wisely, a good portion of the rest of the promotional executions work just as well.
The biggest of these deals has to be one worked out with 7-Eleven. It was first rumored back in March or so that a bunch of 7-Eleven outlets would be converted into real life Kwik-E-Marts. Made sense, since 7-Eleven is pretty obviously and admittedly the inspiration for Apu’s place of business on the show. But then there wasn’t really any news about it. If it was happening, they were keeping it quiet.
Then we woke up on July 1st to Flickr pictures, blog posts and a ton of mainstream media write-ups about how a handful – just 10 – 7-Eleven’s across the country had been fully converted. Signage was changed, standees of Springfield residents such as Chief Wiggum and Principal Skinner were placed inside the store and clerks even wore the same uniform Apu sports.
People drove for miles to check out one if it was in their area at all. They took pictures, shot video and otherwise recounted their experience visiting a real-life Kwik-E-Mart. In terms of publicity generation this is a move that paid for itself inside of probably two hours. The next week or two was a steady stream of not only citizen reports but mainstream media coverage. And because it was so fun and interesting to the readers who couldn’t get to one themselves it was better than any ad buy Fox could have made.
But it wasn’t just the reconfigured stores that was driving people’s interest. It was the fact that 7-Elevens across the nation were now stocked with Simpsons-universe products. You could now buy Squishees, Krusty-O’s cereal, Buzz Cola and more, including the pink donut from the movie’s poster. Again, it was able to break through the clutter and get people’s attention because it was fun and fully engaging in a way that very few marketing campaigns really are.
The partnership paid off for 7-Eleven, too, who reported same store sales at the redesigned stores that were greatly improved over similar periods as people came in to check them out. The one wrinkle in the otherwise stellar gambit appeared when ad agency Leo Burnett popped up about a week before the movie’s opening and claimed they had pitched that very idea, or something close enough to it, when they were competing for work on the movie’s promotional campaign. Other than that, though, this is really a future case study in how to do experiential marketing right.
One of the more thoughtful bits of analysis came from Brian Phillips at Brands Create Customers, who argues that far from advancing the 7-Eleven brand it act it actually shows the chain falling into a comfort zone of sorts, accepting the stereotypes and just doing business-as-usual.
The next biggest bit of alternative marketing involved the studio wanting to find a location for the movie’s premiere. As you know, the Springfield the Simpsons live in is in an unknown state. So Fox decided to hold a competition among the real Springfields throughout the country to decide which one would host the event.
Many competed, with the process even becoming the subject of city council meetings and committees, like they were Chicago trying to woo the Olympic Games. Each town submitted their proposal stating why they would be the best place but in the end Springfield, Vermont won the honors, despite being a late entry. Their video of a giant donut chasing a bald, Homer-esque man around the town apparently won over the hearts and minds of voters to clinch the win. Again, this is something that was just unique enough to really break through into the public consciousness through a steady barrage of online and mainstream media coverage, both of which it received plenty of. Even so, not everyone was a fan.
JetBlue’s promotions for the film are next up. Again, we have a company not just wanting to do a quick sweepstakes but really letting the movie seep into the fabric of the company. Yes, there was a sweepstakes, but that was the least interesting part of the promotion.
More substantive were things like how Charles Montgomery Burns had his assistant Smithers hack into the blog of the JetBlue CEO and take it over for a while. That’s just kind of funny.
Burger King was the obligatory fast-food partner for the movie. The chain offered Simpsons Movie-themed toys in their kids meals and created some in-store signage promoting certain menu items as being favorites of the Simpson clan. Interestingly this isn’t the first time Burger King and The Simpsons have teamed up. I remember back during, I think, the show’s second season BK offering Simpsons toys in their kids meals. If memory serves they recreated the episode where the family gets lost in the woods – the one where Homor gets trapped like a missing link after getting covered in mud and wandering into a bunch of newspeople. So there’s history there.
Online BK created something similar to the avatar-creation feature of the official website. Dubbed SimpsonizeMe, the micro-site worked like a lot of other such efforts. You uploaded a photo of yourself that was then transformed into a yellow-skinned, four-fingered self-portrait. It was amusing, but probably would have been more so if it hadn’t followed the more fully-engaging similar feature elsewhere.
Other promotional partners include:
- Vans Shoes, which created a limited edition series of shoes featuring designs from a number of artists.
- McFarlane Toys signed on to create a series of toys based on the movie.
- Ben & Jerry’s decided (in a rather late announcement) to create a special Simpsons-themed flavor of their ice-cream called Duff and D’oh-Nuts. Unfortunately it’s only available in Vermont and was created because the state won the premiere.
- Microsoft produced a limited edition Xbox 360 in Simpsons-yellow that came with various show content already installed on the console.
In the last couple of weeks there was a tremendous kerfluffle over the appearance of a naked Homer in a field opposite one that features an ancient fertility symbol drawing. Some people said this was a desecration, others just laughed because the fertility symbol shows a naked man with a gi-normous erection. I just didn’t see the point of doing that sort of thing and wrote it off as something someone thought of – and actually put into motion – while drunk and didn’t remember to stop when he sobered up.
A few months ago MySpace (owned by News Corp, natch) announced it would allow its users to share clips from “The Simpsons” on their profile pages. Not so much a move designed to play into popular demand but more one aimed at getting people to revitalize the Simpson brand through social networking. For that I give it points.
Of course Bill Green wondered how Dunkin’ Donuts let this opportunity slip through their fingers, but other than that this was a great overall promotional push.
The movie also got plenty of public relations support as well, with appearances on “The Daily Show” and cover stories in LA Weekly just a few examples of that. Oh, there was also a fashion spread featuring Simpsons characters and Simpsonized versions of models in Vanity Fair.
Wow. Talk about a schizophrenic campaign. You go from the decent if unremarkable trailers to the boring and virtually unbranded posters. You go from the fantastic, deep-seeded experiential efforts of the 7-Eleven promotion to the downright negligent official website.
I don’t know what to do with this campaign. Taken individually most of the components are at least passable. But as a whole it gets weighted down by the incredibly bad website. It’s hard for me not to give this one a passing grade but that’s just what I have to do.
The thing about it is, even with the bad online effort I probably would be easier on the campaign if Fox right now hadn’t essentially decided all online writers were the enemy. That has left a bad taste in my mouth that I can’t get out.
I’m still excited about the movie itself, but that has less to do with this specific campaign and more to do with the legacy of the Simpsons brand. I’m seeing the movie because I love the show and not because the movie marketing has created any strong call to action. Certain parts of the push, the 7-Eleven and other parts of the promotional aspect, have done the best job of adding to my excitement. But the campaign as a whole comes down as almost boring, and that’s something your marketing should never be.
PICKING UP THE SPARE
- 6/18/08: 7-Eleven and its agency partner FreshWorks received a Gold award at the Cannes advertising awards for the retailer’s transformation of a number of their stores into Kwik-E-Marts, something we all really should have seen coming.