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  • Subject area(s): Marketing
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  • Published on: 14th September 2019
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How and why are viral marketing campaigns like The Dark Knight Rises and social media helping to save Hollywood?

The core of the film industry has always been the cinema, but in the last thirty years VHS, DVDs and Blu-rays have radically changed the way entertainment is consumed in our homes. However, it has only been in recent years that the history of film has witnessed the major turning point: the Internet.  Piracy and the rising appeal of on demand Internet streaming services like Netflix helped to create the “staying home” trend and this is definitely noticeable in the box office performance over the last decade-plus (Garrett, 2013).

Therefore, the Internet is definitely considered the main issue for the apparent decline of the film industry.  However, it could be argued that the Internet is actually keeping it alive through viral marketing campaigns. Dobele describes viral marketing as “encouraging individuals to pass on messages received in a hypermedia environment” (Dobele, Toleman, Beverland, 2005).

Hollywood is using viral marketing through social media networking sites to change the way films create buzz and in this way keeping the interest alive. A viral approach has nowadays many more advantages over traditional mass media. For example, there is a “natural selection process embedded in the way the message is propagated” and the speed of diffusion is not even comparable to traditional outlets (Bampo, Ewing, Mather, Stewart, Wallace, 2008). Films like “The Dark Knight Rises,  “Cloverfield” and “The Blair Witch Project” are evidence that viral marketing campaigns are effective and a contributing factor in the boost of the box office.

One of the reasons why viral marketing campaigns are so efficient is because of their hyper-realistic nature. This post-modern term is generally defined as a condition in which what is real and what is fiction are blended together so that there is no real distinction, becoming escapism from the social tensions of everyday life as stated by Dyer's Utopian Solutions Theory (O'Connor, 2000). The producers of “The Dark Knight Rises” effectively used Dyer's theory to create the world of Gotham City before the audience knew about the content of the actual film. In 2011 the official website launched, introducing one of the most successful viral marketing campaigns of all the time. The website streamed an encrypted audio file, described by the users “captivating and enchating”. Users then decrypted the audio to the Twitter hashtag #TheFireRises, and Warner Bros removed a pixel from the webpage for every tweet, in order to reveal the first official image of Bane.  This marketing strategy can be defined as an Alternate Reality Game which consists in an “interactive narrative that uses the real world as a platform, often involving a cross media convergence and game elements to tell a story that may affect participants' ideas or actions” (Kim, Lee, Thomas, Dombrowski 2009).

Furthermore, developing a narrative is essential in the creation of a successful viral marketing campaign as “research shows our brains are not hard-wired to understand logic or retain facts for very long, but our brains are wired to understand and retain stories” (Rush, 2014). Roland Barthes's Hermeneutic Code, which is the way a story avoids telling the truth or revealing all the facts in order to drop clues and create a mystery, has definitely been helpful in creating the hype for the film Cloverfield (Elliston, 2008). The trailer did not name the film and the producers helped in keeping the audience interested by constantly changing the title, for instance; 1-18-08 (USA) (promotional title), Cheese (USA) (fake working title), Clover (USA) (fake working title), Monstrous (USA) (promotional title). These enigma codes were used to generate curiosity as they allow the audience to question the film and engage on multiple levels with the product.

Moreover, homemade footage has been used for the trailer of “The Blair Witch Project.” The technique used by the producers is called Astroturfing, which is a strategy used in order to give the impression of a spontaneous, grassroots behaviour (Zhang, 2013).

While astroturfing enables marketing companies to rapidly reach a potential enourmous audience, the goal of such campaign is to disguise their efforts. This is arguably designed to combat the turn against organised institutional commercialisation by young audiences, which supports Stuart Hall's reception theory (Procter, 2014), meaning that the audience might reject the codes of the producers because they feel too controlled.

In conclusion, I would say that it would be wrong to assert that the Internet is the main cause of the decline of the box office. The Internet is not a substance but a container and if it is integrated to marketing strategies can become a giant machine designed to give people what they want, and in this case helping to keep the film industry alive.


Garrett, T. (2013) Box Office belies dying industry. Available at:

Bampo, M., Ewing, T., Mather, T., Stewart, D., Wallace, M. (2008) The Effects of the Social Structure of Digital Networks on Viral Marketing Performance, London.

O'Connor, B. (200) Pleasure and meaningful discourse, Göttingen University

Kim, J., Lee, E., Thomas, T., Dombrowski, C., (2009) Storytelling in new media: The case of alternate reality games, Universty of Washington

Elliston, B. P. (2008), Ambiguity in Focalization and Barthes' Hermeneutic Code. Unpublished manuscript. Available from

Rush, B. (2014) Science of Story Telling: why and how to use it in your marketing. Available at:

Zhang, j. ( 2013 ) Online Astroturfing: A Theoretical Perspective, University of Texas

Procter, J. (2014) Stuart Hall, New York

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