Movie Marketing Madness: The Smurfs

There’s a whole tradition of Saturday morning cartoons that kids today just aren’t familiar with. Back in the 80’s my younger brother and I would wake around 6AM (earlier than that and the news was still one) and bounce between CBS, NBC and ABC at various times to catch the best animated shows of the era. That included, at any given time, “Snorks,” “Thundar the Barbarian,” “Pac-Man,” “The Real Ghostbusters” and countless others. If available breakfast would be cold pizza from the night before and more than likely we would be arranging our Star Wars, G.I. Joe or Transformers figures while enjoying the best (a loose description) commercial broadcasting had to offer between 6AM and 10AM.

But the rise of cable channels and the increased insistence that all children’s programming be educational soon pushed these fun, though certainly commercial, programs off the air.

One of the stalwarts was certainly “Smurfs” and the characters from that series and the preceding comic strip have now graduated to the big screen with the appropriately titled The Smurfs. The story is pretty familiar while also catering to the latest trends in semi-animated kid’s fare. While trying to escape from Gargamel (Hank Azaria), a band of Smurfs falls through a portal that dumps them into present day New York City. There they latch on to two humans (Neil Patrick Harris and Jayma Hays) who help to hide them while the three-apple-high visitors try to find a way back home.

The Posters

The first poster is every bit as simple as the first trailer. It just has Papa Smurf, Smurfette and the other Smurf looking away from the camera and over the cityscape of New York with the copy “Where the Smurf are we?” attempting to be clever by inserting “Smurf” in place of another word.

The next poster wasn’t a whole lot different, showing a bunch of Smurfs caught in a New York subway door and looking back at the camera. The fact that their little Smurf behinds are the main design component here should let most people know which direction the humor in the movie is coming from.

A series of character-specific one-sheets, each featuring one of the main cast of Smurfs, was released that had some sort of saying that doubled as a character description. Many of these were also later repurposed for outdoor and other advertising.

The Trailers

The first teaser trailer showed almost nothing. After an introduction in the Yahoo premiere from co-star Harris, the spot starts off with narration about something big coming to our world that’s accompanied by shots of world landmarks such as the Sphinx, The Eiffel Tower and Mount Rushmore all of a sudden turning blue. Then we cut to Times Square where three little Smurf heads pop up and just as suddenly duck back down from the screen. Finally we see the three of them hanging on for dear life to the roof-top ad on top of a cab, with the ad showing the movie’s web address. It’s an extreme teaser so it’s not like much was expected and it delivers along those expectations.

The first full length trailer doesn’t go much into the plot (whatever there might be of it, mostly just telling us that the Smurfs’ arrival is heralded by lots of mysterious lights over New York City. We’re quickly introduced to the humans they latch on to. We get a couple shots of Gargamel that show Azaria might be the best thing in the movie but mostly this one is about making a bunch of jokes using the word “smurf” in place of various bodily functions. Not much to go on here but anyone who really couldn’t get enough of the Chipmunks movies will likely find this right up their alley.

The next theatrical length trailer gives the audience a bit more information. We start out in the Smurfs’ village and see their idyllic lives which are interrupted by the presence of Gargamel, who’s finally found what he’s been searching for. All the Smurfs scatter, with one group falling through some sort of rift and winding up in our world. There they cause all sorts of problems in the lives of the humans who find them but still must continue to elude their nemesis who has followed them through to this dimension as well.

In addition to a bit more about the actual story (such as it is) this trailer also shows off how “hip” and self-aware the movie is, with jokes – primarily from Harris – about how they can’t just use “smurf” as a replacement for all sorts of words or how annoying their little song is. It’s not a terrible trailer but you definitely get a sense of the movie’s attitude so your perception of it will be based on your tolerance for this stuff.

Online

The movie’s official website opens by asking if you’d like to watch the trailer again. There are also promotions there for the Smurf Dance Party video game, the Smurf Village iPhone/iPad app and other Sony DVDs. There’s also a link to BeSmurfed, which lets you dress up a Smurf of your choice and then attach a message to the image that you can send to a friend.

Once you Enter the Site the navigation there is actually quite fun. You can access most things from the menu at the top but you can also control a Smurf and have him run or walk to the left or right to hit all those content areas as well.

First up is “Videos” which has both all three Trailers to watch and there are a whopping nine options to choose from in the “Games” section that range from regular games to quizzes that will test your Smurf knowledge and help get you informed.

“About” just has a synopsis to catch up on the plot. Then you can see what actors voice what characters in the “Cast and Crew” section but not view anything about them. Nine stills from the movie can be found in the “Gallery” and “Downloads” has Wallpapers, a Twitter Skin, a Soundboard of audio clips from the movie and Profile Pics that are really just the movie’s posters all collected.

The Facebook page for the film invites you to Like it in order to access the same sort of stuff you can find on the official site and in addition has a Wall full of publicity and marketing updates as well as various media assets. Twitter is similar with the updates.

Advertising and Cross-Promotions

TV advertising began in earnest in mid-May with a spot that ran during the penultimate episode of the current “American Idol” season and which was, obviously, heavy on the singing components of the movie’s story. It also showed there’s a Katy Perry “inside” joke that makes me want to smack someone around quite a bit.

A couple different approaches were taken with the outdoor advertising. On the one hand there were pretty traditional ads that showed one or more of the Smurfy characters. On the other there were bus-side and other ads that looked like warning signs, letting people know the Smurfs were on the loose and not to be distracted by their cuteness, a line that’s stolen from the trailers.

One of the first bit of hype-building promotions was announced way back in December of 2008. Cosmetics company Too Faced launched a line of Smurfette-branded style products for women  to enjoy either straight-faced or in ironic fashion.

Macy’s was also an early promotional partner, announcing that Smurfs would be a big part of their 2010 Thanksgiving Day Parade and that stores would feature exclusive merchandise as well as signage for the movie.

Media and Publicity

Aside from a few “leaked” design mock-ups of the characters that had appeared now and again the first major volley in the publicity campaign was a story in USA Today (6/16/10) that gave readers an overview of what the movie’s story would be, what situations the characters would find themselves in and when the first teaser trailer could be expected. That story also included the first official publicity still from the movie, giving people their first sanctioned look at the Smurfs as they would look in the movie as well as making it clear the story took place in modern day New York City. Of course the secondary explosions around this story on various movie blogs likely dwarfed the scale of the original media hit so this definitely got people talking in advance of that trailer.

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).

As release neared the studio tried to get the fans involved in the marketing a bit by declaring June 25th Global Smurfs Day (New York Times, 6/12/11) and encouraging those fans to gather in cities across the country dressed as Smurfs in an effort to set a world record for such an activity.

Smurfette even took on the role of high fashion model in a spread for Harper’s Bazaar (June, 2011). And the Smurfs became the focal point of a new campaign from New York’s tourism company, which announced “Smurfs Week” with activities at retailers and other locations throughout the city.

Overall

What strikes me most about this campaign is that it’s almost 100% geared toward kids and not at all toward people of my generation who grew up with the cartoon. Unless you count by proxy as the studio seeks to make sure parents know that this movie is basically the same as Alvin & The Chipmunks from a few years ago and so, depending on your parenting decisions, suitable for the little ones.

Other than that it works so hard to be inoffensive that it winds up being just the opposite, with the only redeeming factor apparently being Azaria’s scene-chewing performance as Gargamel. There’s little here for anyone above the age of 12 to latch on to or find interesting aside from that, not even from a morbid curiosity perspective. It’s almost identical to not only Alvin but all the other recent movies featuring humans interacting with computer-animated cartoon characters and so holds little interest to anyone who knows any better.

PICKING UP THE SPARE

  • 07/28/11 – NBC Universal signed on for lots of Smurfs-related promotions, inserting characters into shows on NBC and the variety of cable networks it owns and running other Smurfy stuff.
  • 07/29/11 – Apparently the movie is also the latest McDonald’s Happy Meal tie-in.
  • 07/29/11 – Christopher Campbell at Spout looks at the rampant product placement in the movie, including for what looks to be the biggest shill for New York itself.