What’s the opposite of clearing the bar? When something or someone attempts to follow-up a great success the usual commentary is that they set the bar high the first time and now will need to clear that in order for the second thing to be seen as being as successful or innovative as the first one. But occasionally despite the financial success something might enjoy the consensus is that artistically the first entry was a piece of garbage. So it’s not like there’s a bar or hurdle to be cleared…it’s more like there’s a pile of some sort to be added to with subsequent attempts.

I’ll be the first to admit that I liked the first Transformers movie more than I had any right to. No, it wasn’t quite the same version of the story or characters that I had grown up with and yes a little LaBeouf certainly goes a long way. But the movie moved along at a good clip, took itself completely and utterly seriously and featured enough bullet points of a story that the computer-generated action sequences hung on them were more or less enjoyable. When I finally saw the sequel, Revenge of the Fallen, I found it to be almost completely incomprehensible so stopped trying after about 15 minutes and, while certainly cognizant of its shortcomings, didn’t hate it. Both movies did pretty well at the box-office even as they were – especially the second one – roundly crucified by critics.

Now we have the third entry in this franchise, Transformers: Dark of the Moon. In this entry (and again the story is almost completely irrelevant) the big effing robots are back for mayhem. This time the Autobots, still working as some sort of covert ops unit ferreting out latent Decepticons around the world, discover that the U.S. government wasn’t fully upfront with them about the history of giant robots on this planet. This comes at the same time the Decepticons rally around a new push to conquer the world. Shia LaBeouf returns as the human the Autobots are most attached to but Megan Fox is out (more on that below) and has had her role as Sam Whitwicky’s arm candy replaced by Rosie Huntington-Whiteley. The two of them, of course, get caught up in the mayhem and violence that breaks out, violence that this time is centered in Chicago, specifically North Michigan Ave. Well…I guess world domination has to start somewhere.

The Posters

The first poster for the movie tells the audience just about everything they need to know about the story. The real estate is dominated by Optimus Prime, who’s standing defiantly along North Michigan Ave. in Chicago (just south of the river at the intersection with Wacker Dr. if the perspective on the Crain’s building (the slightly curved one over his shoulder on the right) is any indication) with what appears to be a Decepticon under his feet. The two humans are standing in front of him looking into the middle distance worryingly and there are a couple of menacing constructs coming in from the sky behind him.

A second poster focused on the IMAX release of the movie and featured Prime in a similar location along Michigan Ave., though this time he’s by himself with his glowing sword thing about to strike, with one of the mysterious pod things hovering above the skyline in the background.

Character one-sheets featured Bumblebee and Optimus Prime up close and personal with the camera with enemy ships and fighters flying through the sky in the background.

 

Special interactive posters were released that worked in conjunction with an official movie app that first let you find what theaters these posters were located at and then unlocked exclusive augmented reality content that included a game and other experiences.

The Trailers

The first trailer was a lot like the teasers for the first movie, which showed a Martian rover encountering something huge and mechanical. This time, though, we’re taken back to 1969 and the first moon landing. Instead of being a purely scientific mission, though, we see that its true hidden purpose was to explore the wreck of a huge spaceship that had crashed on the dark side of the moon and which we eventually see still has at least one huge freaking robot occupant. The footage here is reportedly also in the movie itself unlike that used in the first movie’s teaser so this is likely some of the stage-setting that’s done in the first moments of the film.

The first theatrical length trailer starts off with something crashing on the moon as McDormand warns LaBeouf that talking about anything could lead him to be charged with treason. That’s about all the plot development as we then kick fully into battle mode as a bright beam of light ascends from the Chicago Loop and things start to blow up all over the place. Chicago is later seen with smoke rising from across the city and it’s clear that something about the Decepticon attack is different this time. We see lots of familiar faces, both human and machine, running and attacking and running and attacking. It’s good but it’s not like there are major plot points unveiled here other than the attack on the earth is pretty serious.

That theatrical trailer was repurposed for 3D promotions and could even be viewed online in 3D after buying a Hasbro unit and downloading a free app for iPhones or iPod Touches.

Just before release another trailer was released that was pretty short – just a minute in length – and was all about showing the destruction that rains down on Chicago, with lots of shots of giant robots wreaking havoc and destroying buildings. Not exactly subtle but subtlety isn’t going to put hinders in seats.

Online

There’s all sorts of stuff going on when the official website first loads. There is (as of Tuesday evening) an invitation to watch the movie’s livestreamed premiere, a prompt to download the movie’s official iPhone app and stream the previous two movies somewhere online. There’s also a couple things relating to Linkin Park and their offering on the soundtrack; First a video of their playing at the Moscow premiere and then the news that if you pull out the Shazam app and use it during a commercial for the movie you can get a free download.

Once you enter the site the first two things that are offered, prompts to either watch the trailer or a featurette on the “wing man” stunt that is featured in the film.

The first section of content is “About” and has a very brief synopsis as well as Cast, Filmmaker and Notes sections that are still labeled as “Coming Soon” despite the fact that the movie opens in roughly 48 hours.

“Video” has the two trailers, the Super Bowl TV spot and a couple of featurettes. “Downloads” has Wallpapers and Buddy Icons and the “Gallery” has just eight stills from the movie.

The movie’s Facebook page has updates on the movie’s marketing and publicity efforts as well as lots of video and an emphasis on the recent red carpet premiere. The Twitter profile has similar updates sans all that multimedia.

Advertising and Cross-Promotions

The first ad push came in the form of a co-branded spot with promotional partner Chevy that was aired during the 2011 Super Bowl. The spot doesn’t show any movie footage but instead appears like a local car dealership commercial that’s being filmed, only things go more than a little wrong when the car that the owner is walking around opens up and is revealed to be Bumblebee.

There was also a straight movie spot during the game. That commercial showed exactly what it needed to show, which is lots of computer-animated robots completely trashing each other on the streets of Chicago, recognizable to anyone familiar with the city or who caught all the buzz around the movie’s filming around here. The spot looks to be entirely made up of footage from the last couple of reels of the movie and is all action with no setup or anything like that. We see the returning human characters as well as Sam’s new love interest in Huntington-Whiteley but the rest is all destruction and mayhem.

More regular TV commercials would begin running a few months later, mostly showing the destruction of Chicago and the harrowing situations the human characters are put in. There were, in many of them, hints as to the back-story of the Transformers having some sort of secret history here on Earth but that’s not explored very deeply in these 30-second spots, which are more about showing the spectacle than anything else. The movie would also be among those advertised during this year’s MTV Movie Awards.

As the TV advertising progressed and release date approached the commercials would begin getting much more specific about the plot, spelling out not just the action and humor but also the idea of a global conspiracy that is leading to the Decepticon’s plans to take over the world once and for all.

Outdoor ads began being a few months before release that did little but show the audience that the movie was going to feature Optimus Prime kicking some butt and that it came out on July 1st. Later variations on the same idea shows Bumblebee and Shockwave as well. Further banners would feature other new characters whose identities weren’t immediately apparent.

Some form of partnership with NASCAR was evident with news that a couple stars from the movie would be serving as Grand Marshals at the Daytona 500, a race that would also feature the first public appearance by the modified stock cars that are featured in the film. A commercial that aired during that broadcast didn’t cut a lot of new ground in terms of footage shown compared to the Super Bowl commercial with the exception of a couple of good shots of the cars that have NASCAR paint jobs.

The robots were also again part of Chevy’s presence on the auto show circuit, with models of Bumblebee and presumably others appearing alongside their car forms. There would also be co-branded commercials run both on TV and in theaters featuring Bumblebee driving around evading his enemies. Of course the partnership with Chevrolet ran pretty deep and included the casting of the carmaker’s top cars only as good guys (THR, 6/22/11) in the movie and involved the company picking out makes and models it was looking to promote. Chevy also announced (MediaPost, 6/28/11) that it would be making and marketing a special Transformers-edition Camaro for 2012 for everyone who ever wanted to actually own Bumblebee.

Media and Publicity

While there was plenty of speculation about what robots would or wouldn’t appear in the movie, the biggest bombshell came when reports were published that Megan Fox would absolutely not be in the movie (Los Angeles Times, 5/19/10), likely the result of her public fueding with Bay during the publicity tour for the second movie. That set off a ton of speculation as to why and who would be replacing her as the love interest in the new entry.

That speculation ended when it began to be reported the Victoria’s Secret model Rosie Huntington-Whiteley would be cast. While there was a significant gap between the first reports along these lines and any official announcement, confirmation of a sort did come when Victoria’s Secret itself released a video congratulating her on getting the role.

A later story covered that but also went more into what the movie’s plot would be, the first glimpse that was given along those lines. The story (USA Today, 6/11/10) revealed the plot revolved the Transformer’s role in the US/Russia space race of the 1960’s and would feature Shockwave as the main bad guy. In there Bay also promised less goofy humor, blaming some of the second film’s shortcomings on the stress of the writer’s strike from 2008, as if anyone believed there were writers on that movie.

The tie-in toys and other products for the movie were also among those debuting or otherwise making a big show at the annual Toy Fair convention (Hollywood Reporter, 2/10/11). Shortly after that there was news (Forbes, 2/17/11) of special 3D glasses that came in the form of Autobot helmets you could wear to the theater and really let your fandom show.

First looks at some of the new robots in this entry came via the press, including a glimpse at Sentinel Prime on the cover of Empire.

The press for the movie included Bay making a sort of artistic mea culpa about the quality of the second movie, which he claimed (Hollywood Reporter, 3/7/11) was due in large part to the writer’s strike that happened just prior to that film’s shooting.

Huntington-Whitley became part of the news when it was announced (THR, 3/25/11) that she was being named Female Star of Tomorrow by CinemaCon, something that really is a testament to the power of Paramount’s publicity department since not only has she not acted before but this debut outing is in a Michael Bay movie, something that’s not generally known for its level of acting prowess. She was also later put in the #1 slot on Maxim’s Hot 100 list.

The movie itself was back in the press when some extended sequences were shown to the press, producing the very sort of “this is absolutely nuts” (EW, 4/15/11) reactions that you would expect while also showing very little of the movie’s plot.

Some press was generated by virtue of the movie’s promotional partnerships, particularly the car-based ones (AdAge, 5/3/11) since it was one of several big movies to feature substantial automotive support.

Overall

It might just be me but I feel like, with the general opinion of the second installment so very, very low there was more of a press effort for this movie to generate some goodwill in the audience. That’s shown most distinctly Michael Bay’s pseudo-contrition tour, where he joined in the chorus of people calling Revenge of the Fallen a not very good movie.

Once again the campaign here is nicely laid out, with teasers to build anticipation and then payoffs that really only *feel* like payoffs but aren’t really, because with movies this simplistic it’s best to leave lots of information (including vast swaths of the supposed story) out of the campaign so as not to give anyone the impression they’re going to have to follow anything. There’s also the desire to actually get people to talk about how “cool” the movie is, so the more the campaign can keep from showing the more potential talking points there are after the fact.

Also once again it doesn’t really matter how well the campaign works or not. Simply by creating awareness there’s a substantial percentage of the general moviegoing public that will choose this movie this weekend just because it’s there. So actually judging the effectiveness of the marketing becomes an exercise in futility since it’s all about, as I said, awareness and message repetition.