Movie Marketing Madness: 2012

2012 Poster 6There’s nothing some filmmakers love more than ending the world. The excitement they feel over making landmarks fall down, seas boil over and mass amounts of humanity be wiped out in an instant is so palpable you can practically feel their erection as you sit in the theater seats.

The ability to destroy the Earth has become easier not by the rise of nuclear weapons but by the advances in computer-generated animation. Asking computer operators to make those pixels dance in a way that mimics a massive building falling down seems to be the primary skills possessed by some directors. One of those, of course, is the much-maligned Roland Emmerich. Emmerich is one of the brains behind Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow and other movies that have lots of people running away from various matte paintings and green-screens.

His latest is what brings us here today. 2012 is purportedly based on a reading of the ancient Mayan calendar that pegs December 21st, 2012 as the day the world will come to an end. And as with his previous films the focus is placed simultaneously on the world at large and on one small family – complete with requisite strife to heighten the drama – as things unfold around them.

The Posters

2012 Poster TeaserThe first poster for the movie was a pretty simple teaser, with just the movie’s title treatment and a little bit of text on a black background. Above the title was the copy “Who will be left behind?” which not only plays into the idea that it’s the apocolypse and there will be survivors but also comes with the associated correlation to the “Left Behind” series of books that are popular with people because they pretend to be based on Biblical teachings.

The second, released shortly after director Emmerich appeared at Comic-Con, recreated an image from one of the trailers that shows a major metropolitan area – I think it’s Los Angeles – buckling like sidewalk blocks against the tremendous pressure of the entire ocean rising up and flooding it combined with massive earthquakes. As I said, it ties directly into the trailer footage but also carries more than a little bit of similarities with the posters for his last end-of-the-world flick The Day After Tomorrow, which also showed a city getting the shaft from Mother Nature.

More teasers then followed that continued not only the theme of this campaign but also Emmerich’s tradition of mass chaos, with each one of the three showing the rampant destruction and death toll being visited upon a series of locations around the world.


A later theatrical poster took the action and made it a little more personal while at the same time recreating one of the images from the first teaser trailer. This one features the same “We were warned” copy the rest of them sport but has a Tibetan monk standing at the top of the Himalayan mountains watching helplessly as the waves of water come crashing over the mountains in front of him. It works alright in that it gives a little bit of a sense of scale (as much as is possible with these movies) to the events and, because it harkens back to the teaser trailer, more or less brings the campaign full circle. It’s also a little less scary for the audience to see this level of decimation being visited on far-away mountain ranges than urban landscapes and so is slightly more accessible for the general viewer.

The Trailers

2012 Pic 5The teaser trailer features precious little about the movie’s plot, other than it’s going to revolve once again around Emmerich ending the human race in some way, shape or form. A lone Tibetian monk races along the mountain tops before entering a small building where he begins ringing what is presumably a warning bell. It’s then we start to see what he’s running from, a huge wave of water that’s coming over the mountain, a wave that eventually overcomes the small outpost.

In between all that are various bits of text about how the leaders of the world wouldn’t warn us if they knew the end of the world were coming. It’s ended with a prompt to find out the truth not be visiting a website but by searching for “2012.”

That’s an interesting strategy to take. It’s been used by a few companies in the past – encouraging people to Google or otherwise search for a brand name – but this is the first time for a movie that I can recall. And they obviously did their legwork before launching the trailer since a search of Google for that did bring up movie-related sites among the first few results, with more general paranoia links placing lower on the page.

The second trailer went more deeply into the story that we’ll be following in the film. It starts with a recap of how the Mayan’s warned us 2012 would be the end all be all before showing us the loving family that’s fathered by John Cusack, who while driving his kids finds fiery meteors raining down around him.

That’s the beginning of the badness, as we then get shot after shot of 200 foot waves crashing across the land, shore lines buckling under the pressure, landmarks crushing thousands of people and other such destruction. As that plays out we see Cusack is valiantly trying to lead his family to safety, a mission that takes them on planes, in cars and dangerously close to death. All while the government officials bicker about species continuity and who gets to survive.

There was a third trailer released after the long-form preview (discussed below) that starts off roughly the same way but features a lot of footage from that extended preview. We get more of Cusack trying to rescue his family from the coming destruction.

After that more singular focus the trailer then expands once again to show the devastation being wrought around the globe as monuments and come toppling down and survivors struggle to stay alive.


2012 PicThe official website opens with the first full trailer playing over a background that’s pulled from that trailer, the image of the USS John F. Kennedy being tossed on to the White House.

The first content area is “About the Film” and that leads off with a Synopsis that’s two sentences long and simply restates the premise – the world is ending but there are survivors, which doesn’t really make sense – without going any deeper. Cast and Crew profiles are here providing background on the players. Downloads also lives here, which is a bit unusual since it usually gets its own section. Wallpapers, Buddy Icons and a Twitter Background are available there. Finally there’s a Gallery – again usually a stand-alone area – that contains a batch of images you can view but, of course, not download.

Let’s talk about that Twitter background for a second. that’s the first time, unless I’m mistaken, I’ve seen that offered on a movie’s site. Offering that to people is obviously a way to get those excited about the movie to spread the word in an organic way. And it’s simply the latest iteration of a strategy that’s been around since 2005, when movie sites promoted MySpace skins you could add to your profile.

While it’s pretty low cost to create and offer that same sort of thing for Twitter it does fly in the face of how people are using Twitter, which is vastly different than how they used MySpace. Website usage for Twitter is, according to most metrics, relatively low compared to its actual user base. That’s because you can use Twitter through text messaging or by using any number of third-party applications. So there’s very little need among experienced or higher-level users to ever hit the website. Which means exposure to this is going to be fairly low since 2012 enthusiasts are a subset of a subset of a subset.

Again, there’s no downside in offering this for download – it probably took about 10 hours to create and test, maximum. But Twitter backgrounds are, in my view, better used as part of corporate branding campaigns, where a company wants to bring a certain look over to Twitter or make sure that multiple official accounts are branded consistently. Not that there’s much downside here – the low cost means any adoption is a win, more or less – but it’s not going to get the same impact as even the preceding MySpace skins used to.

Getting back to the website, the next section here is “Video.” There you’ll find the Teaser and first full Trailer, but not the last one, which is kind of odd. There’s also the music video for the song from Adam Lambert (more on this later) and a whole blog with multiple video entries on the movie’s visual effects. There’s also one called the 2012 Movie Experience, which walks through the alternate reality game that was played in the year or so leading up to the movie and which I’ll cover shortly.

The next section promotes the couple of “iPhone Apps” that took the user through their paces as they were asked to try and survive the end of the world. One of those apps was more about testing your survival skills while the other was more of a recreation of the movie’s storyline as you tried to outrun natural disasters. After that was a “Game” that tested your survival skill knowledge. And finally the “2012 Escape Sweepstakes” tests your ability to recall something from the movie’s trailer and enters you to win a cruise vacation.

The movie’s Facebook and MySpace pages contain trailers, photos and other information on the film and promote the iPhone games, ARG sites and other elements.

Going back to the ARG, listed on the site under the “The Experience” heading, there are a couple main hubs that then have some offshoots. While the entire game has been a little hard to follow – largely because there’s little actual interactivity from the audience – it has been wide-ranging.

The core component has been the Institute for Human Continuity, an organization that is working to make sure the human race survives the apocalyptic events of 2012. Balancing that is, the website for Charlie Frost, a paranoid conspiracy theorist who’s also convinced the end of the world is coming but who questions the IHC’s efforts. Finally there’s FarewellAtlantis, the official site for the book written by John Cusack’s character about the Mayan prophecy of 2012. The fact that he’s written a book about it kind of makes the surprise his character seems to experience over what’s happening seem less credible. Shouldn’t he have been more…prepared? Or at least aware?

In fact, as Liz Miller at NewTeeVee points out, the fact that these organizations exist at all seems to run counter to the logic that’s used within the movie itself. The ARG seems to posit that there are plenty of people on the ball about what’s happening and are preparing for it, while the movie says it’s just the secretive governments that are scrambling to put covert plans into motion.

Most all of these have YouTube channels, Twitter feeds, Facebook profiles and more in an effort to not only blanket the web in content but also create a narrative arc that leads up to the movie. The problem is that, as I alluded to earlier, there doesn’t seem to be a tremendous amount of interactivity in the program. You can follow the arc of the story but mainly passively, with very few points where you can play along.

Instead of trying to recap them all and failing I’ll simply share the “Experience” video that’s on the website, which does a decent job of all that, though it’s painful in how it alternates between playing the ARG straight and then shifting to tongue-in-cheek mode.

Advertising and Cross-Promotions

2012 Pic 3With a movie of this size it shouldn’t be surprising that there was a ton of advertising done for it. TV spots have been almost unavoidable in the weeks leading up to release. Most all of them are shorter versions of the trailer and show off the same action sequences, including the flight between crumbling buildings and the manic drive as the street collapses behind the car. While I’m sure there are plenty who have seen these and been excited at the prospect of so many special effects being presented to them but in general these spots work far less well than the trailers, primarily because the shortened running time does the footage no favors.

A few weeks before release Fox engineered a massive “roadblock” strategy (Variety, 9/23/09) for the movie that put a two-minute clip of never-before-seen footage across most all TV networks, local stations, cable outlets and everywhere else during a block of prime-time programming, meaning you probably couldn’t escape it if you tried. The two-minute clip then teased the availability of an extended five-minute version that would be available afterward Comcast On Demand and Comcast’s streaming portal. (Disclosure: Voce, my employer, works with and I’m personally involved with that client. We did not, however, have any relationship with this promotion.)

Online advertising was also plentiful, mostly using the poster art, with some units incorporating the IHC alternate reality game as well.

Some of the poster art concepts also got repurposed as in-theater and other out-of-home ads.

Surprisingly I’m not seeing anything about any promotional partners.

Media and Publicity

2012 Pic 2The Institute for Human Continuity caused a lot of online chatter – especially on Twitter – as people found it and freaked out, only to have their friends then explain to them that it was all just part of a movie marketing campaign and the world wasn’t really ending in 2012, despite what the well-produced and slick-looking website was telling them. There were even some mainstream media stories like this one that dispelled the rumor that the IHC was real, which is some sort of testament to how good that site looked.

There was even some coverage of the campaign in the marketing press, with publications/sites like ClickZ writing up their reactions and recaps of the movie’s online campaign, ranging from the search engine components to the IHC “game” that was being played by the studio. And Brandfreak wrote up a piece about how Mayan elders were trying to shout into the wind about how 2012 isn’t actually when their calendar says the world will end, but their voice is pretty quite compared to a massive marketing campaign.

Countering the premise of the movie was also the subject of stories like this one in the LA Times (10/17/09) about how scientists were trying to calm the fears of an increasing number of people who were afraid they were going to be around for the end of the world and were having trouble dealing with that, including some people considering suicide to avoid that.

There was also considerable buzz to be gained by hooking up with “American Idol” runner-up Adam Lambert. The wannabe rock star contributed his first post-“Idol” song “Time for Miracles” to the soundtrack, with the song being teased on Moviefone and the subsequent video debuting initially on MySpace, part of that site’s attempt to become an entertainment portal.

There was even, as is the case with many similar movies, a cable TV special that dives into the premise of the film. These are barely-concealed marketing tactics and often come off as laughable and this looks to be no exception.

Put all together, the campaign became one of the most talked-about efforts (Los Angeles Times, 10/29/09) of mid-to-late 2009.


2012 TitleWell that’s quite a campaign, isn’t it?

Despite the impressive reach of the marketing – all those posters, all those websites, all those TV commercials – the campaign winds up feeling like the same sort of superficial spectacle the movie will likely be. It’s all glam that’s focused on the same five or six repeating images (USS Kennedy crashing into the White House, the Pacific sea board buckling into the ocean, etc) that convey the filmmaker’s and marketer’s hopes that seeing these moving images will be all the payoff the audience needs.

If you look back at the campaign for The Day After Tomorrow and use it as precedent, it’s unlikely that there’s anything substantive being held back from the audience in this marketing push. My guess is that after all the trailers, extended clips and other material we’ve now seen 98 percent of the movie’s major set-pieces. After all, what’s the use of hiding anything when the main thought process seems to be that you need those sequences to bring people in.

So from a marketing perspective you’d have to call the campaign a success. It’s unlikely to have been executed on the scale or with the tactics it was without a firm belief that it would appeal to the target audience, a group that is likely to be more impressed with spectacle than with substance anyway.


  • 11/14/09: I got interviewed a couple weeks ago about 2012’s marketing and what I thought of it, specifically about how it seemed to be getting so much attention for honking people off and causing more than a few folks to mistakenly think the world was ending. That interview resulted in a quick quote from me in The Guardian UK that, interestingly enough, is actually about the marketing for The Love Guru, but still in the context of campaigns that were more engaging than the films they were supporting.
  • 11/16/09: That story also was used by Stephen Salto as the basis for a list of some movie marketing disasters that’s pretty funny.
  • 11/16/09: Todd Defren of SHIFT Communications also pulled in a quote from my column in his post about social movie marketing that’s worth a read.
  • 11/17/09: NASA was so inundated by requests for information on some of the movie’s supposed “facts” it setup a page simply for the purposes of debunking those items.

By Chris Thilk

Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist with over 15 years of experience in online strategy and content marketing. He lives in the Chicago suburbs.


  1. Hi Chris,

    another great MMM posting!
    Just one thing. 2012 is not the first movie to offer twitter backgrounds on the official website. Watchmen did this before.

    Regards from Germany,

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